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The clock is ticking for NASA's Mars Opportunity rover

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, September 14, 2018, 11:33 AM - Will NASA's venerable Mars explorer, Opportunity, call home, now that a planet-spanning dust storm has cleared? The clock is ticking. Also, NASA's Cassini mission wins an Emmy for its amazing public outreach at the end of the mission. It's What's Up In Space!

Opportunity, phone home!

It has been too quiet on the planet Mars for the past two months.

After June 10, 2018, NASA's Opportunity rover fell silent. An immense dust storm, which had spread over the entire planet, had finally grown so thick over the 14+ year old solar-powered explorer, that it could no longer gather enough energy to stay awake. This cut the number of signals coming from the surface of Mars in half, as it only left nuclear-powered Curiosity roving around and sending back images and science.

Since then, it has been a tough time for the NASA team here on Earth, while they anxiously waited for their amazing little robot to perk up and send at least a few beeps home to let them know it was okay.

Now that the skies have cleared enough over the rover, reaching a tau of 1.5, based on data from the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), now is the time when Opportunity has the best chance of gathering enough energy from its solar panels to switch back on.

(FYI: Tau is a scientific measure of just how 'opaque' the sky is, in this case due to dust lofted into the Martian atmosphere. At its peak, the tau value over Opportunity reached 10.8 - the highest value ever recorded by any mission sent to the planet.)

The question, now, is: Will Opportunity call home?

Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam) took the component images for this view from a position outside Endeavor Crater during the span of June 7 to June 19, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

According to NASA, the rover now has 42 days - 45 days starting on September 11 - to wake up and send a signal back to controllers here on Earth.

During that time, the team is sending several active signals at Mars every day, intended - in the most basic terms - to act as an alarm clock signal to the rover.

According to NASA:

With skies clearing, mission managers are hopeful the rover will attempt to call home, but they are also prepared for an extended period of silence. "If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover," said Callas. At that point, the team will report to NASA HQ to determine whether to continue with the strategy or adjust it. Callas added, "In the unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun's energy, we will continue passive listening efforts for several months."
The additional several months for passive listening are an allowance for the possibility that a Red Planet dust devil could come along and literally dust off Opportunity’s solar arrays. Such “cleaning events” were first discovered by Mars rover teams in 2004 when, on several occasions, battery power levels aboard both Spirit and Opportunity increased by several percent during a single Martian night, when the logical expectation was that they would continue to decrease. These cleaning dust devils have even been imaged by both rovers on the surface and spacecraft in orbit (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8lfJ0c7WQ8 and https://mars.nasa.gov/resources/5307/the-serpent-dust-devil-of-mars/).

Stay tuned for updates on this story!

Cassini Grand Finale wins the Emmy!

Roughly a year ago, the absolutely amazing, possibly irreplaceable NASA mission, Cassini, took its last dive around the ringed planet, Saturn, to plunge into its churning atmosphere.

Watch Below: Final Cassini images give stunning look at Saturn

After 13 years of orbiting around Saturn, sending back incredible imagery and paradigm-changing science, Cassini had run out of fuel, and rather than risk the out-of-control spacecraft crashing into one of the planet's pristine moons, NASA made the decision to bring the mission to its grand finale.

While the entire Cassini mission has been a paragon of transparency, with images sent back by the spacecraft's cameras showing up within a day on NASA's website, the agency decided to turn this grand finale into a Grand Finale - a public outreach mission that would highlight the breathtaking work the spacecraft had already done, to reveal to the world (a world which may not have been paying much attention to what Cassini had been giving us over the years) exactly what the value of this mission has been, and (hopefully) bring the entire mission to a satisfying conclusion.

Were they successful?

Well, on September 8, 2018, the Cassini Grand Finale won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Interactive Program!

Members of the JPL Media Relations and Public Engagement offices, and leaders of the Cassini Mission received an Emmy for Outstanding Original Interactive Program at the Television Academy's 2018 Creative Arts Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Los Angeles. L to R: Preston Dyches, Julie Webster, Phil Davis, Earl Maize, Jess Doherty, Alice Wessen, Jia-Rui Cook, Linda Spilker, Veronica McGregor (holding the Emmy), Stephanie L. Smith. Credit: Courtesy of the Television Academy

"Thank you to space fans, if you're a current space fan or future space fan. We can't fit you all into mission control but we can give you a virtual seat and we can put you at Saturn and we can put you at Mars," said Veronica McGregor, manager of JPL's Media Relations Office. "Thanks also to NASA and JPL for having a culture that tells us to shoot for the stars in all of our positions, whether we are explorers or storytellers. This is for science, for science literacy, and discovery."

Remarkably, this award comes at a time when - even a year after the mission ended - we are still seeing new imagery and science popping up from Cassini.

During NASA's Cassini mission's final distant encounter with Saturn's giant moon Titan, the spacecraft captured this view of the enigmatic moon's north polar landscape of lakes and seas, which are filled with liquid methane and ethane. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Sources: NASA | NASA 


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