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NASA Mars rover weathers monster dust storm

NASA's Opportunity rover will aim to survive the Martian cold.

This global map of Mars shows the dust storm sweeping across the landscape. The blue dot near the center shows Opportunity's location.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

It's hard to complain about Earth weather once you realize just how crazy it can get on Mars. 

A dust storm larger than the continent of North America is currently plaguing the Red Planet. NASA announced on Friday the suspension of science operations for the Opportunity rover while it waits for the storm to blow over.

NASA released a global map of Mars captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 6. It shows the growing dust storm and a blue dot indicating the rover's approximate location. 

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first noticed the storm building back on June 1. The MRO team warned the Opportunity team to get ready for the blast. The storm quickly grew to cover over 7 million square miles (18 million square kilometers) and swept across Perseverance Valley where Opportunity is located. 

The swirling dust is impacting Opportunity's solar panels, which it uses to recharge its batteries and power the heaters that allow the rover to function in the extreme cold conditions of Mars. NASA says the dust storm's effect is "comparable to an extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight."   

"There is a risk to the rover if the storm persists for too long and Opportunity gets too cold while waiting for the skies to clear," says NASA.

The Curiosity rover team is also keeping tabs on the dust storm, even though it is located in the Gale Crater on the other side of the planet. 

"We expect that even if the storm dissipates before becoming a global dust storm, that the amount of dust in Gale will increase over the next several days," Curiosity team member Scott Guzewich wrote in an update last week.

As epic as this storm is, it's still smaller than a 2007 storm that forced Opportunity to hunker down for two weeks. The rover's current suspension of activity is expected to be temporary. The long-lived machine is a survivor. It landed on Mars in 2004 for a planned 90-day mission and is still going strong all these years later.

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