RIP Opportunity, the Little Mars Rover That Could

14 February, 2019, 09:57 | Author: Dwayne Harmon
  • Science										
		
																	This dune-covered volcanic rock bed is one of the coolest places on Mars					
								
			
	
		Mike Wehner

This was a 90-day mission, and we were so excited by just having three months to explore the planet with just a kilometer of capability.

The dust storm, which cut off light to Opportunity's solar panels and likely doomed its batteries to death, made it impossible for the rover to continue on, and NASA hasn't heard from it in over six months.

Mission team members have been trying to rouse the rover since June and listening for any possible signals.

The two rovers' greatest achievement was finding firm proof that water that could have sustained microbial life had once flowed on the Martian surface. That's when the Sojourner craft arrived at Mars, roving for 83 Martian days on what was meant to be a seven-day test mission. Spirit, which suffered wheel damage, became stuck at Troy and was unable to collect sufficient sunlight during the following martian winter, similarly suffering a lack of power and cold damage.

Rover robots found signs of water in the first rocks they encountered on Mars, as rocks near the aircraft's landing site contained pearl-shaped rocks. "We were running around saying, "Water on Mars!"

"While it is sad that we move from one mission to the next, it's really all part of one big objective", he said.

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The rover continuously surpassed NASA's expectations after touching down on the Red Planet in January 2004 with an expected operation of just 90 Martian days and 3,281 feet (or 1,000 meters) of travel. Opportunity's batteries went through more than 5,000 charging cycles, and were still capable of holding an 85 percent charge after more than 14 years of use. "We had no idea it would take this long".

The program has had an extraordinary record of success: 28.1 miles (45.2 kilometers) traversed, more than the Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 moon rover during the 1970s and more than the rover that U.S. astronauts took to the moon on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Unfortunately, a global dust storm that started in June 2018 was too much for the aging rover, which lost power early in the storm. And aside from a few major storms that got in the way, the rover never stopped returning science data. "It wouldn't know when to deep-sleep", Callas said, and that may have led the rover to keep the heater on and exhaust the last of its energy. Once the storm had passed, engineers were hopeful that the sun would wake Opportunity up again. "Even though it's a machine, it's still very hard and very poignant". "Science is an emotional affair".

"Spirit and Opportunity may be gone", said Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Mike Watkins, "but they leave us a legacy, and that's a legacy of a new paradigm for solar system exploration".

NASA is already working on the next mission to the Red Planet: Mars 2020 is on track to launch in July 2020. NASA's Mars InSight lander, which touched down on Mars last November, has just finished deploying its scientific instruments and will be monitoring Mars' interior. The pair were part of the Mars Exploration Rovers, or MER, mission.

Opportunity was the fifth of eight spacecraft to successfully land on Mars so far, all belonging to NASA.

"I declare the Opportunity mission is complete", said NASA's Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen during a press conference on Wednesday.

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