Question Of Life Beyond Earth Piqued With New Discovery On Mars

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The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and MAVEN orbiters all routinely support Opportunity's operations on the ground and communication back to Earth via the Deep Space Network.

Despite limited sunlight to charge its battery, Opportunity also needs to deal with sub-freezing temperatures on Mars. Likewise, performing certain actions draws on battery power, but can actually expel energy and raise the rover's temperature. Where a similar storm encountered by Opportunity in 2007 had an opacity or tau of 5.5, the present one is pegging at 10.8 tau.

In 2014, the rover, which has allowed scientists to explore whether Mars boasted conditions conducive to life, made the first definitive detection of organic molecules formed from ancient lake sediment, also in Gale crater rock, but it was a much more limited set of compounds. A dust storm as large as North America is now raging over the Opportunity rover's location on Mars. There is a fear that if the rover's power stays down for too long, the Martian cold could damage Opportunity, which has been exploring Mars since 2004.

"We first started observing little bursts of methane, and it really wasn't until this paper, which incorporates data from the last five-and-a-half years from the rover, that we were able to show that those methane bursts occur on a seasonal basis and therefore really are intrinsic, they're from Mars itself", Siebach says.

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"... More importantly, the swirling dust has raised the atmospheric opacity, or 'tau, ' in the valley in the past few days".

By Wednesday (June 6), Opportunity's power levels saw a major drop, forcing the rover to stop all science to conserve power. This is because Mars is really cold, and Opportunity relies on power from its solar panels to keep its battery warm. "They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months".

NASA announced on Friday that the Opportunity rover is now being hit by the worst dust storm it's ever experienced in the 15 years since it landed on Mars. The agency had to switch to two weeks of minimal operations and cut off contact with rover for days in order to save power. Opportunity is in its 15th year; the team has operated the rover for more than 50 times longer than originally planned.

"This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Centre. These storms actively lift dust high into the atmosphere which in turn blocks sunlight. "That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand".

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