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Three and a Half Months of Silence, But at Least We See Opportunity Again

It is now over three and a half months since the last contact with Opportunity, but at least the dust storm has cleared enough to allow us to see her again, albeit as just a small dot that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone who wouldn’t know exactly what should be in just that spot. With an estimated atmospheric opacity of 1.3 at the time the picture was taken, this should also mean that enough sunlight should reach her solar panels to allow her to wake up and at least send back a beep, but the good news turns into bad news with every day that passes without that happening, the chances of her having been damaged in a way that won’t allow her to wake up at all, or at least not allow her to communicate again, increasing.
According to the published plan, if Opportunity is still able to communicate, she should do so within at most 45 days of the conditions improving sufficiently, which has been defined as the atmospheric opacity dropping below 1.5 twice, with at least a week between the measurements, which had already happened at the time those plans were published. This means that more than a third of that period has already passed and there are good reasons for hope to turn into concern. There is, however, also the chance that much dust ended up on the solar panels, which may allow for communications to be restored later, once some wind will clean some of it away, such cleaning events having happened quite a few times before. That is entirely a matter of chance though, and so much dust may have damaged components, while the batteries staying completely drained for so long may have reduced their capacity too much. In addition, while it was estimated that during the dust storm itself the temperature won’t drop so low as to damage components without the use of heaters, that may change as time passes, and the aging components may no longer withstand the full temperature range they were designed for in the first place.
Still, that rover has been through much already and continued to survive. With various issues, but she survived for 14 and a half years despite having been designed to last for only three months, so she may yet pull through this as well. In what shape she’ll be in if she does so will be another matter entirely, but as long as the communications systems will be operational there should still be something for her to offer regardless. At the same time, it’d be awfully sad if just the communications systems would have failed, the rover otherwise being able to wake up, possibly having done so already, and just trying to call home time and time again until the elements finally put an end to her, maybe even years from now, while we won’t know or be able to do anything about it. So, at least for the next few weeks, let’s keep hoping… And maybe send a “postcard”, if you haven’t done so already.

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