NASA starts 45-day signaling period for Mars rover

The solar-powered Opportunity rover has been silent since June, when a Mars dust storm blotted out the sun over its location. Now the air is clearing. Will the rover respond?

This image is part of a panorama, whose component images were acquired by Opportunity from June 7 to 19, 2017. See the rover tracks? Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University.

NASA said on August 30, 2018, that it planned to start soon on a 45-day effort to restore communication with its Mars rover Opportunity. It said recovery efforts would begin in earnest when atmospheric opacity (tau) over the rover site had fallen below an estimated measurement of 1.5, twice, with one week apart between measurements. On September 10, NASA said that the benchmark had been reached, and that skies are now clearing over the rover. The Opportunity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, had been sending a command to the rover three times a week, in hopes of eliciting a response. The team is now increasing the frequency of commands to multiple times per day, for 45 days. NASA said:

Passive listening for Opportunity will also continue to be performed by JPL’s Radio Science Group, which records radio signals emanating from Mars with a very sensitive broadband receiver.

The 14-year-old rover has been silent on Mars’ surface since early June, when a dust storm on Mars went global and blotted out the sun over Opportunity’s location.

The rover is solar-powered and needs sunlight to operate.

If you want to follow the rover recovery efforts on Twitter, you can do so here: @MarsRovers.

Tempers have flared a bit during this period of silence for the rover. When NASA first announced it would give the rover 45 days to wake up, Mike Seibert, a former flight director and rover driver for Opportunity who is no longer at JPL, is one of several who said publicly that time period was too short. He commented that JPL attempted active listening for Spirit, the twin of Opportunity, for 10 months in 2010 and 2011 when that rover stopped transmitting before giving up.

That’s probably why NASA took special care with this most recent announcement about the recovery. It said it had revised part of its August 30 statement to including the following, more fully described recovery process for Opportunity:

The science team is also sending a command three times a week to elicit a beep if the rover happens to be awake, and will soon be expanding the commanding to include ‘sweep and beeps’ to address a possible complexity with certain conditions within the mission clock fault. These will continue through January of 2019 …

Back during the attempted recovery of the Spirit rover, a technical issue required the team to actively command the rover to communicate. Opportunity has no such issue; if we hear from it, it will likely be from listening passively as we have been, and as we will continue to do through January.

As we wait to hear whether Oppotunity will revive and respond, there’s been an outpouring of warmth toward the little robot explorer, now sitting silent on Mars. If you want to join in, you could send a postcard. In the meantime, on Twitter today, many gushed their support for the rover, from afar:

View larger. | Opportunity caught its own shadow on Mars on July 26, 2008. Read more about this image.

Bottom line: NASA has begun a 45-day period of signaling multiple times per day to the 14-year-old Opportunity rover on Mars. The solar-powered rover has been silent since June, 2018, when a global dust storm blotted out the sun from its location. Good luck, Oppy!


Deborah Byrd