NASA’s little Mars rover is battling a fierce dust storm the size of North America which is raging over the surface of the Red Planet.
The Opportunity rover was forced to halt operations last week as the storm swept over Perserverance Valley, bringing enough dust to blot out the sun.
Engineers at NASA have put the robot into minimal operations mode and are waiting to see if it will still function once the dust has settled.
The exploration rover relies on light to run its solar panels, which charge its internal battery and generate power for its heaters.
While the rover sent a transmission down to Earth on Sunday, the storm has intensified in recent days bringing “a dark, perpetual night over the rover’s location”, NASA said in a statement.
Scientists are concerned over the robot’s power levels.
There is a risk that Opportunity will get too cold as it struggles to power its internal heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars’ extreme cold.
Like the human body, the exploration rover cannot function well under excessively hot or cold temperatures.
In order to survive, the rover must not exceed temperatures of -40C to +40C.
The storm was first detected on Saturday, June 1 and promptly grew to span more than seven million square miles – an area greater than North America.
Scientists said the swirling dust has created an extreme smog that blots out sunlight.
NASA said Opportunity’s power levels had dropped “significantly” by Wednesday, June 6, requiring the rover to shift to minimal operations.
But data from the transmission on Sunday told engineers that the rover still has enough battery charge to communication with ground controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
It also showed the rover’s temperature to be around -29C.
NASA said it will continue to monitor the rover’s power levels closely in the week to come.
However, it said that the rover has already proved hardier than expected by lasting nearly 15 years – despite being designed for a 90-day mission.
This is not the first time Opportunity has hunkered down in bad weather.
In 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet leading to two weeks of minimal operations, including several days with no contact from the rover to save power.