A week ago the storm was 18 million square kilometres (7 million square miles) in size. Since then the winds have reached over 41 million square kilometres (15.8 million square miles), an area equivalent to North America and Russia combined.
Since the entire surface area of Mars is just under 145 million square kilometres, this is quite a dust storm. And NASA’s sun-loving robot Opportunity is right in the middle of it.
Curiosity rover, which is located on the other side of the planet and is helping scientists track the dust storm as it encroaches on the horizon, has a nuclear reactor to keep it ticking. But Opportunity relies on solar panels to soak up power from the Sun’s rays.
The dust in the air has for all purposes turned day into night, and as of June 6 the poor rover has been operating in crisis mode, conserving just enough energy in its batteries to stay toasty enough to power up its circuits later.
If we’re lucky, the dust storm will be helping it conserve some of that heat and squeeze a few more days out of its depleted reserves. If not …
What does this mean for Opportunity? If we’re optimistic, NASA will be giving us a rundown of the various ways it’s going to try to save the mission that’s been going strong for 14 years.
But we may also need to brace ourselves and prepare for a few tears if we tune in to an obituary for Curiosity’s older cousin as it joins Spirit (2004 to 2010) in the great Martian robot graveyard.
Science marches on, though. While it could well be sad news for the rover, the dust storm itself is a spectacular opportunity to learn more about the insane meteorology on our red neighbour.
Either way, we’ll be paying close attention, and keeping our fingers crossed the news is not all bad.