Mars Opportunity Rover Appears to Send Data to Earth After Five Months of Silence


Screenshot of NASA's Deep Space Network Now website from Thursday afternoon. 

Opportunity, a NASA rover that has rolling across Mars since 2004, appears to have suddenly woken up from a five month slumber.

On Thursday afternoon, NASA’s Deep Space Network registered a downlink connection from Opportunity, which appeared to be transmitting at 11 bytes per second. This is a painfully slow data connection, but it’s being greeted with a cautious enthusiasm by planetary scientists and space heads who thought they’d never hear from the rover again.

Motherboard called NASA’s communications office to confirm the downlink connection. NASA was unable to confirm the downlink or provide additional details at the time, but we will update this post when we know more.

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Image of the Martian sky as a dust storm engulfed the planet. Image: NASA

In June, NASA lost contact with the rover after a planet-wide dust storm engulfed Mars. The rover entered a hibernation mode shortly after contact was lost and researchers hoped they’d be able to wake the rover up once the Martian atmosphere was clear enough to send a signal from the ground to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter circling the planet and relaying data back to Earth.

In September, after the atmosphere had mostly cleared, NASA scientists began working to re-establish communication with the rover without luck. NASA suggested this may have to do with a large amount of dust deposited on the rover’s solar panels, which supply it with all of its energy. NASA said it hoped that this dust might get blown away by seasonal winds that whip around the planet between November and January, a time known as Opportunity’s “dust-clearing season.” These winds have previously removed dust from the rover’s solar panels and allowed the rover to continue operating. It is unclear whether Opportunity’s recent downlink with the Deep Space Network was the rover re-establishing a signal with Earth. It is possible that downlink was a “ghost signal” or an artifact from data previously sent to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that hadn’t been transmitted to Earth yet. Even if Opportunity hasn't woken up, the rover outlived its expected 92-day mission by over 14 years.