Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have started transmitting new commands to the Opportunity rover, in hopes of awakening its connection with Earth. While Opportunity recently celebrated 15 years on Mars, it also sent a stark reminder to the rover team that communication has stopped.
June 10, 2018, marks the last time Opportunity communicated with Earth. During that time, a storm hit the solar-powered rover’s location, and blocked enough sunlight that Opportunity couldn’t charge its battery. It’s been silent ever since.
The new commands, which will be beamed throughout the next few weeks, will address “low-likelihood events that could have occurred aboard Opportunity, preventing it from transmitting,” according to NASA.
The new commands will address three scenarios:
- The rover’s primary X-band radio, which Opportunity uses to communicate with Earth, has failed.
- Both Opportunity’s primary and secondary X-band radios have failed.
- The rover’s internal clock, which provides a timeframe for its computer brain, is offset.
The probability is quite low that one of these events is the culprit, as NASA admits “a series of unlikely events would need to have transpired for any one of these faults to occur.”
“We have and will continue to use multiple techniques in our attempts to contact the rover,” says John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at JPL. “These new command strategies are in addition to the ‘sweep and beep’ commands we have been transmitting up to the rover since September.”
Instead of idly listening for life signs of the rover, the “sweep and beep” approach sends commands to Opportunity to respond back with a beep.
“Over the past 7 months we have attempted to contact Opportunity over 600 times. While we have not heard back from the rover and the probability that we ever will is decreasing each day, we plan to continue to pursue every logical solution that could put us back in touch,” Callas says.
According to NASA, the team has to act fast since Mars is about to exit “dust-clearing” season, which experiences high-speed winds that could clean off any dust that’s blocking Opportunity’s solar panels. As this optimal period nears its end, Mars’ southern winter is waiting in the wings. During this time, the extreme temperature drop could “cause irreparable harm to an unpowered rover’s batteries, internal wiring, and/or computer systems,” warns NASA.
If, by chance, engineers receive a ping from Opportunity, they could attempt a recovery. However, if the silence continues, the team will consult with the Mars Program Office at JPL and NASA Headquarters to determine the next steps.
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