Gigantic Mars dust storm threatens Nasa's Opportunity rover

Nick Allen
The Opportunity rover on Mars - AFP

In the Hollywood movie The Martian, starring Matt Damon, a massive dust storm causes havoc for a manned mission to the Red Planet, forcing early human visitors to abandon the surface.

Last night Nasa detailed how a real example of such a gigantic natural event left their solar-powered rover Opportunity uncontactable and in danger.

Ground controllers at the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were repeatedly trying to contact the rover but it appeared to have gone into "sleep mode".

A senior official there said: "It's like having a loved one in coma in the hospital. If it's you're 97-year-old grandmother you're going to be concerned."

The storm has been growing since the end of May and now covers one-quarter of the planet, blanketing 14 million square miles blotting out the sun.

Images of the Mars dust storm Credit: Nasa

Officials said it was days away from becoming a planet-wide event. One said: "It's unprecedented in the speed its grown and spread across the globe."

There was a similar planet enveloping dust storm on Mars in 2007, which Opportunity survived.

An official said the key question for future human missions was finding out why big storms happened in some years and not others.

A composite image of the storm from Nasa's Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft Credit: Nasa

He said: "Mars is sort of extreme in that regard. Knowing how the dust storms happen is important for future missions. This is an unprecedented opportunity to study it.

"In the future we may be able to learn with benefits for the safety of crews."

Opportunity was launched in 2003 to study rocks and soil on Mars.

An official said the rover had "the finest batteries in the solar system" but was operating at "historic low energy levels" with probably only its mission clock still going.

He said: "We think we can ride this out for a while. We just hope clear skies will open up and we're all pulling for Opportunity."