The Opportunity of a Lifetime, and the Lifetime of an Opportunity

NASA Mars Rover (c)NASA, public domain picture (not copyrighted)

I love space. I love the unknown and I love discovering more about it. Thus, it was no surprise that I was devastated to hear that after almost 15 long, wonderful years of exploration, NASA had declared the Opportunity Mars rover dead as of February 13, 2019.

We had our Opportunity…

NASA’s Opportunity rover was undoubtedly one of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration. Originally, NASA only expected Opportunity to last 90 Martian days and travel 1,000 meters, but it exceeded its life expectancy by 60 times and traveled more than 45 kilometers over its lifetime.

The last message NASA received from Opportunity was from June 2018, before a severe dust storm on Mars left red dust caked on Opportunity’s solar panels. Initially, the Opportunity team was not too concerned. Strong winds on Mars blew from November to January and were usually strong enough to wipe accumulated dust from Opportunity’s solar panels. These winds were actually one of the major reasons the rover lasted so long in the first place. But when “rover cleaning” season came and went without any signals from Opportunity, its future began to look bleak. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, January 12th, to no avail.

What We’ve Achieved

In celebration of Opportunity, here are some of its greatest accomplishments:

  • In 2004, Opportunity found hematite, a mineral that forms in water, at its landing site.
  • On March 20th, 2005, Opportunity set a one-day Mars driving record, traveling 220 meters.
  • In 2011, Opportunity found mineral veins of gypsum at the Endeavour Crater. Scientists believe that water deposited the gypsum and this discovery spurred further study on the possibility of water on Mars.
  • In total, Opportunity sent more than 217,000 images back to Earth. This included fifteen 360-degree color panoramas.
  • Opportunity exposed the surfaces of 52 rocks to analyze the fresh mineral surfaces underneath.
  • Opportunity brushed 72 additional targets to prepare them for inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager.

NASA’s Remarks

“For more than a decade, Opportunity has been an icon in the field of planetary exploration, teaching us about Mars’ ancient past as a wet, potentially habitable planet, and revealing uncharted Martian landscapes. Whatever loss we feel now must be tempered with the knowledge that the legacy of Opportunity continues – both on the surface of Mars with the Curiosity rover and InSight lander – and in the clean rooms of JPL, where the upcoming Mars 2020 rover is taking shape.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate

We didn’t miss any opportunities, but we sure miss our Opportunity.

Spirit (c)xkcd, CC BY-NC 2.5

Until next time,
👋

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