The storm appeared on June 1—a haze of dust kicked up by winds blowing across the surface of Mars, visible in images sent back by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. That’s not that unusual. Large dust storms happen on the planet every year, often lasting for weeks. But this storm was headed right for Opportunity, a determined solar powered rover that’s been roaming around the surface for almost 15 years.
This image shows a dust storm on Mars growing on June 6, 2018. The blue dot is the approximate location of Opportunity.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
By June 6, the dust hung thick enough in the sky to draw a veil across the Sun, dimming the light enough to significantly decrease the output of Opportunity’s solar panels.
Back on Earth, NASA researchers shut down the robot’s science operations—the focus now wasn’t gathering data, but keeping Opportunity alive. The rover converts sunlight into power, which recharges its battery and powers all its systems, including its heaters, which keep it functional when temperatures dip below zero. But less sunlight means less power and less heat to go around, straining the rover’s systems. Keeping Opportunity warm is vitally important—NASA researchers think it was cold temperatures that killed Opportunity’s ...