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As Mars’ huge dust storm clears, NASA’s Opportunity rover is seen but not heard

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An image from a high-resolution camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the Opportunity rover as a bright blip inside the white box. The box marks a 154-foot-wide area in Mars’ Perseverance Valley. Click on the image for a larger version. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona Photo)

NASA’s Opportunity rover still hasn’t made contact after a weeks-long Martian dust storm forced it to go into hibernation, but at least the skies are now clear enough to spot the solar-powered robot from orbit.

And mission managers say they’re a long way from giving up on Opportunity, which began its work on the surface of Mars almost 15 years ago.

Oppy shows up as a blip on the slopes of Perseverance Valley in a color image captured Sept. 20 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, from a height of 166 miles.

The orbiter’s clear view raises hopes that winds will sweep dust off Opportunity’s solar panels, as has happened several times before, and allow the rover to build up enough power to resume transmissions.

Mars’ storm-dimmed skies caused power levels to fall in mid-June, eventually forcing Opportunity to cut its power consumption down to the bare minimum. The rover is equipped with plutonium-powered heating units, which should have helped keep it from freezing, but the power drain cut off communication links with Earth.

NASA said a metric that measures sky opacity, known as tau, has improved significantly over the past couple of months. The tau rating was higher than 10 during the height of the storm, but fell to a value of 1.3 as of Sept. 20. At values lower than 1.5, the rover should be able to recharge its batteries.

A couple of weeks ago, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory started increasing the frequency of commands it’s been sending to the rover. That heightened campaign for contact should last another month, adding up to 45 days. Some of Oppy’s fans worried that NASA would give up on the rover if and when the 45-day clock runs out. But Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, signaled that the listening would continue:

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