NASA's Opportunity rover may not have to worry about running into traffic congestion on Mars, but vast dust storms are definitely an occupational hazard. It is one of the largest storms that the rover has had to encounter and there are chances that the rover could become too cold to continue with its experiments.
Opportunity's team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA's Deep Space Network, a global system of antennas that talks to all the agency's deep space probes. NASA describes the situation as "a dark, perpetual night" shrouding the rover's current home in Perseverance Valley. In 2007, Mars experienced a dust storm which covered the entire planet, forcing Opportunity to sort of couch down for two weeks.
The latest data transmission from Opportunity on Sunday morning showed the rover's temperature to be about -20°F (-29°C). The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity. The Mars 2020 rover, whose body is based heavily on that of Curiosity, will also collect and cache samples for eventual return to Earth, where scientists could scrutinize them for any evidence of native Martians. The agency had to switch to two weeks of minimal operations and cut off contact with rover for days in order to save power.
Like all Martian spacecraft, Opportunity uses solar panels to keep its batteries charged.
This storm is bad, but Opportunity is made of hardy stuff.
"Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent", according to a NASA statement. On June 7, the rover's power levels dropped appreciably.
A self-portrait of NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars taken by the Microscopic Imager on the rover's robotic arm to celebrate its 5,000th Martian day in February 2018. Conducting research is pretty tough with dust and debris flying around, but being caught in the storm isn't just a bummer from a scientific standpoint; Opportunity's power comes from batteries linked to solar panels, and those solar panels don't work well when the skies aren't clear. Its heaters are vitally important to keeping it alive, but also draw more power from the battery. During summer in the south, the Sun warms dust particles, causing them to rise up higher into the sky.
Top speed of the vehicle is 50 mm/second (0.18 km/h), and in the time it spent on Mars in managed to travel only 45 kilometers (28 miles), unofficially becoming the single slowest, most expensive self-propelled vehicle. The updrafts of dust can trigger more winds, triggering a feedback loop that fuels the birth of a dust storm.