Even if you aren’t particularly interested in space or science news you’ve probably heard about the plight of NASA’s Opportunity rover. The plucky robot, which has far outlived its initial mission and has been conducting “bonus” science work for over a decade since, was swallowed up by a massive dust storm on Mars, cutting off sunlight and causing it to lose power due to lack of solar energy for its batteries.
That was in early June, and even though the skies above the rover have become bright again there’s been no sign that the rover has woken back up. Now, with hope and patience both dwindling, NASA has officially started the countdown to declaring the rover officially dead.
In its most recent mission update, the Opportunity team explained that it was planning a 45-day countdown throughout which it would make an effort to wake the robot back up. As Gizmodo explains, that timer began ticking on Wednesday of this week, and now everyone has to hold their breath and wait for the bot to phone home.
There are a number of different things that could have happened to the rover that would have caused it to shut down. The first, a low-power fault, is the most likely culprit. Such a fault would cause the rover to enter a sort of hibernation where it would wake up occasionally to check its power levels. When the Sun began hitting its solar panels and charging its battery again, the rover should notice the full batteries and begin communicating again.
That means something else might have gone wrong. A clock fault, where the rover loses track of time and doesn’t know when to check in or attempt to send a signal. An uploss fault occurs when the rover goes too long without talking to its handlers on Earth and assumes something is wrong with its own communication hardware. Even if Opportunity had experienced all three of these faults, the 45-day window should be enough time to negate them, as long as its batteries have power.
That last point is obviously the biggest question mark of them all. Nobody knows what Opportunity looks like right now, whether its solar panels are covered in dusty soil or if sun is actually able to reach them. Likewise, the rover’s battery might have been damaged from the extensive downtime and could be broken. If we never hear from Opportunity again we might never know what actually happened to the friendly rover, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that it wakes back up soon.
NASA’s Opportunity rover might be taking an extended nap at the moment (please don’t say it’s dead!) but the Curiosity rover is wide awake and doing a whole bunch of science stuff. The nuclear-powered robot, which didn’t experience any significant downtime in the wake of the dust storm that brought down its older sibling, just got done playing with some new rocks, and took a moment to grab a fantastic 360-degree view of its surroundings.
The image, which is a bit distorted near the bottom due to the quirks of taking a panorama with the rover’s own body in the frame, is a timely reminder of just how harsh the conditions on the Red Planet are.
“The panorama includes umber skies, darkened by a fading global dust storm,” NASA explains in a new blog post. “It also includes a rare view by the Mast Camera of the rover itself, revealing a thin layer of dust on Curiosity’s deck. In the foreground is the rover’s most recent drill target, named “Stoer” after a town in Scotland near where important discoveries about early life on Earth were made in lakebed sediments.”
Those “umber skies” are still pretty dusty, but they’re a whole lot brighter than they were a few weeks back when the planet-wide dust storm was still at full strength. As for the target rock that Curiosity’s handlers sampled, it was a big win for the team which has had some unusually bad luck lately. As NASA notes, the team’s previous two target rocks were too hard to actually drill into, stifling attempts to get quality samples.
The panorama is pretty fantastic, and it’s even better when viewed in the 360-degree layout provided by YouTube. Removing all the distortion, you can actually look around and examine anything you want, including the rover itself. What’s particularly interesting is the significant amount of dust and debris that has built up on the rover’s body. You can even see the hole that has developed in one of the rover’s rugged wheels, which is the result of it climbing over sharp rocks.
Time flies when you’re trying to message a rover that just won’t wake up. It’s now been nearly three full months since NASA has heard from the Opportunity rover which fell into hibernation following a massive dust storm that swallowed Mars whole. The solar-powered rover was expected to enter a low-power default state, but with the Sun now shining through the clearing skies, the rover can’t seem to snap out of its funk.
The rover, which is over a decade and a half old at this point, was only supposed to last a few months on the Martian surface. It’s since spent over 14 years on the Martian surface, and the original mission timeline has been extended again and again as the rover proved it was up for additional work, but now it’s looking more and more like it might be the end of the road.
Waiting for the rover to wake back up has to be stressful for NASA engineers. A few weeks back the team revealed that they had been building playlists of songs to keep their spirits high, but as their repeated attempts to contact Opportunity are met with only silence, the hope that the rover will suddenly spring to life is fading.
“It is expected that Opportunity has experienced a low-power fault and perhaps, a mission clock fault and then, an up-loss timer fault,” the Opportunity team explained in a recent mission update. “The project is continuing to listen for the rover either during the expected fault communication windows, or listening over a broader range of times using the Deep Space Network Radio Science Receiver.”
The scientists also revealed that they occasionally send a short message to the rover in the hopes that it might be awake but just not actively attempting to communicate. “The project is also sending a command three times a week to elicit a beep if the rover happens to be awake,” the team says.
The biggest fear for the scientists is that the rover’s batteries — which aren’t used to sitting cold and depleted for such a long span — may have been damaged to totally destroyed during the downtime. Nevertheless, the team is going to stick it out a little while longer, but the clock is ticking and if they don’t hear back soon the robot will be declared dead.
The rover has not checked in as controllers are getting ready to trigger contact.
When NASA launches manned missions to space they have to bring just about everything along with them. You can’t reach out into space for resources when you’re cruising in orbit aboard the International Space Station, and the Apollo missions to the Moon didn’t attempt to turn anything on the lunar surface into anything useful for the trip. When NASA sends humans to Mars, that’s going to have to change.
Missions to Mars will need to be as lean as possible, meaning that using any available resources on the Red Planet will be of utmost importance. With that in mind, NASA just announced the CO2 Conversion Challenge, which asks teams of scientists and inventors to come up with a way to turn CO2 into molecules that can be used to produce all manner of things. And there’s big prize money on the line.
To start, NASA is asking teams to focus on converting CO2 to Glucose, but the language of the challenge suggests you can approach that goal from any angle you wish:
Help us discover ways to develop novel synthesis technologies that use carbon dioxide (CO2) as the sole carbon source to generate molecules that can be used to manufacture a variety of products, including “substrates” for use in microbial bioreactors.
Because CO2 is readily abundant within the Martian atmosphere, such technologies will translate into in-situ manufacturing of products to enable humans to live and thrive on the planet, and also be implemented on Earth by using both waste and atmospheric CO2 as a resource.
Teams or individuals who want to participate will need to register by January 24, 2019, and then officially apply by February 28. Experts will review each plan and award up to $250,000 spread across up to five individuals or teams.
The next phase of the competition is still a bit light on details. NASA says it’ll announce the rules and criteria once Phase 1 is complete, but the administration has revealed that it’s ready to award up to $750,000 to the individual, team, or teams that can demonstrate that their system(s) work as intended and could be used by astronauts on Mars.
“Future planetary habitats on Mars will require a high degree of self-sufficiency,” NASA explains. “This requires a concerted effort to both effectively recycle supplies brought from Earth and use local resources such as CO2, water and regolith to manufacture mission-relevant products. Human life support and habitation systems will treat wastewater to make drinking water, recover oxygen from CO2, convert solid wastes to useable products, grow food, and specially design equipment and packaging to allow reuse in alternate forms.”
If you think you’re up to the task of engineering a system that could keep Mars astronauts alive, you only have a few months to apply. Get to it!