Top 10 Long-Term Space Exploration Problems We Have Yet To Solve

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3 The Dust Storm

In January 2004, the NASA space rover Opportunity landed on Mars for a 90-day mission (in Mars days) to find evidence of water on the Red Planet. Opportunity completed its assignment almost immediately and went on to complete more missions over 15 years. Its surprising survival streak ended in June 2018 when it lost contact with NASA during a dust storm.

Opportunity often hibernated at night because it ran on solar power. However, it probably switched to its backup battery after the dust from the storm covered its solar panels. Opportunity ran on its batteries until it died. NASA fears a repeat incident could happen with the solar-powered stations used by astronauts on Mars.

Mars experiences two types of dust storms. The first and commonest are the regular storms that could cover large swathes of land as wide as a whole continent on Earth. Thankfully, these storms are light and only last for a few weeks. The other type—like the one that killed Opportunity—is the rarer but stronger “global dust storm” that covers the entire planet.

Global dust storms occur every 5.5 Earth years (three Mars years) and could last for months. Besides covering the solar panels, they could also block sunlight from reaching Mars, which could put the stations and astronauts in jeopardy. Thankfully, Mars dust storms are unlikely to cause serious physical damage to the stations. They are more of a breeze than a storm despite the name.

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