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NASA rover knocked out, trying to survive giant dust storm on Mars

By: MARCIA DUNN , AP Aerospace Writer
June 13, 2018 Updated: June 13, 2018 at 4:11 pm
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Caption +
This composite image made from observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft shows a global map of Mars with a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The storm was first detected on June 1. The blue dot at center indicates the approximate location of the Opportunity rover. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA's seemingly unstoppable Mars rover Opportunity has been knocked out by a gigantic dust storm that is enveloping the red planet and blotting out the sun.

Officials said Wednesday they're hopeful the rover will survive the storm, which already covers one-quarter of Mars and is expected to encircle the planet in another few days. It could be weeks or even months, though, until the sky clears enough for sunlight to reach the Martian surface and recharge Opportunity's batteries through its solar panels.

For now, Mars' oldest working rover is stuck in the middle of the raging storm, in complete round-the-clock darkness.

"By no means are we out of the woods here," said John Callas, the Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "This storm is threatening, and we don't know how long it will last, and we don't know what the environment will be like once it clears."

All flight controllers can do is wait for the storm to pass and the sky to clear, officials said, and hope Opportunity calls home.

Mars Rover
This combination of images made by NASA's Curiosity rover shows the rim of the Gale Crater on June 7 and 10, 2018 during a major dust storm. The Opportunity rover, which is inside the crater, has fallen silent as the storm blots out the sun. On Tuesday, June 12, 2018, flight controllers tried to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond. The storm has been growing since the end of May and now covers one-quarter of the planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via AP) 

Flight controllers tried late Tuesday night to contact Opportunity, but the rover did not respond. The storm has been growing since the end of May with unprecedented speed.

Opportunity's batteries are likely so low that only a clock is still working, to wake the spacecraft for periodic power-level checks, according to officials.

NASA launched the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit in 2003 to study Martian rocks and soil. Spirit hasn't worked for several years. Opportunity, however, has kept exploring well past its expected mission lifetime.

"Keep in mind, we're talking about a rover that's been working at Mars, hanging in there, for 15 years and designed just for 90 days. It just doesn't get any better than that," said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars exploration program.

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The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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