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Opportunity rover stuck in standby mode after Martian blackout

Have they tried turning it off and then on again?

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Updated NASA is trying to reactivate its Martian rover Opportunity after it switched itself into standby mode during a communications quiet period, but engineers have had no luck as yet at restoring control.

The space agency hasn't been communicating with its Martian rovers for the last few weeks as there has been a solar conjunction, during which the Sun partially masks the Red Planet from Earth transmissions. In order to avoid any commands being garbled and causing problems, NASA avoids communication – but with this period now over, the agency was looking forward to getting Opportunity back on the move.

However, during the blind period it seems Opportunity automatically shut down non-essential systems and has gone into a power-conserving standby mode, although communications channels appear to be still open. It's thought the rover shut itself down on April 22, and there's been no luck yet in getting it back online

"Our current suspicion is that Opportunity rebooted its flight software, possibly while the cameras on the mast were imaging the sun," said Mars Exploration Rover project manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in a statement on Monday.

"We found the rover in a standby state called automode," he said, "in which it maintains power balance and communication schedules, but waits for instructions from the ground. We crafted our solar conjunction plan to be resilient to this kind of rover reset, if it were to occur."

A spokesman from JPL confirmed to The Register on Tuesday that commands to reactivate the rover were sent out, but that so far there is no progress to report. While there are other avenues to try, it's not looking too good for Opportunity.

The rover has been trundling across the Martian surface for over nine years, going over 21 miles of rocky terrain, and is the longest-lasting probe to function on the Red Planet. Its twin, Spirit, got stuck in a sand drift in 2009 and was designated a "stationary research station" (and given a poignant xkcd send-off) before being declared dead by NASA in 2011.

It's a tribute to the engineers at JPL that the rovers have lasted as long as they have. The original design specification called for them to last 90 Martian days (or 92 Earth days) and they have outlasted that many times over – not bad for a machine run entirely by solar power to charge its lithium batteries and subject to that many brutal Martian winters.

Many of the lessons learned by Spirit and Opportunity were used in the design and manufacture of NASA's newest rover, Curiosity. After the recent solar conjunction, NASA reports that Curiosity is doing just fine and will be ready to receive new orders in a few days.

In the meantime, engineers at JPL will be trying every trick in the book to get Opportunity up and running again. When Spirit went into automode back in 2009, the JPL engineers were able to bring it back from the dead using a mixture of signal types, and will try similar tactics now.

Here at Vulture Annex we wish them every bit of luck. Opportunity and Spirit were the first rovers to do long-term exploration on the Red Planet (although Sojourner blazed the way), and it would be nice to see at least one of them carry on the mission. ®

Update

The back-room boffins have worked their magic again and Opportunity is back online and carrying on its scientific mission.

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