NASA fears its Mars rover may never wake up after huge dust storm threatens its nearly 15 years on the planet

Ella Wills
A series of images show simulated views of the darkening Martian sky, with the right side simulating the rover's current view: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

Engineers at NASA fear a Mars rover may never wake up again as a huge storm has threatened to end the robot's nearly 15 years on the planet.

The Opportunity robot lost contact with Earth on Monday, leading scientists to believe it has entered "lower power fault mode" - or gone to sleep.

It comes after the rover was forced to halt operations last week as the fierce storm swept over Perserverance Valley, bringing enough dust to blot out the sun.

The robot relies on sunlight to power its solar panels and charge its batteries.

But the Martian dust storm, first detected on May 30, has continued to grow and now blankets a quarter of the Red Planet.

An artist's impression of the NASA Mars exploration rover on the surface of the Red Planet (NASA)

The team are now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity's batteries has dipped below 24 volts and it has gone to sleep, NASA said in a statement.

"The rover has entered low power fault mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off," it added.

The mission clock is programmed to wake the computer up so it can check power levels.

This global map of Mars shows the growing dust storm as of June 6. The blue dot shows the approximate location of the rover (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

However, if the computer determines that the rover's batteries do not have enough charge, Opportunity will put itself back to sleep leaving engineers unable to contact it.

Due to the extreme amount of dust over Opportunity, engineers are concerned that the rover will not have enough sunlight to charge back up for "at least the next several days".

If the rover is unable to charge back up again, it may lose contact with Earth, bringing an end to a 15-year mission that gave scientists an unprecedented look at the Martian service.

The rover has already proved hardier than expected by lasting nearly 15 years - despite being designed for a 90-day mission.

This is not the first time Opportunity has hunkered down in bad weather.

In 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet leading to two weeks of minimal operations, including several days with no contact from the rover to save power.