Who would have thought that Opportunity, a distant and cold robot would have warmed the hearts of millions of enthusiasts all over the Earth? Science engineering geology and… why not, ethics, and philosophy are the keystones moving the research of space exploration.
The mighty adventure begins
In the early morning of Jan. 25, 2004, the world held its breath as NASA’s Mars rover, Opportunity, began its descent onto the surface of the Red Planet. Scientists had been planning and preparing for this moment for years, eager to see what secrets the rover would uncover. And while Opportunity’s mission officially ended in February 2019, its legacy lives on, inspiring generations of scientists and engineers to continue exploring the mysteries of our universe.
Opportunity was launched on Jul. 7, 2003, on board a Delta II rocket, and landed on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004. The rover started its journey at Meridiani Planum, approximately 24 kilometers east of the intended landing site, later nicknamed Eagle crater.
NASA announced on Jan. 28, 2004, that the landing site would remember the seven astronauts of the Space Shuttle Challenger who died on the STS-51-L mission.
The primary mission of the rover was supposed to last only 90 Martian days, or “sols,” but Opportunity far exceeded expectations. Over the course of its 15-year mission, Opportunity traveled more than 45 kilometers (28 miles) across the Martian surface, taking over 200,000 images, and making countless ground-breaking discoveries.
Water for the thirsty
One of Opportunity’s biggest achievements was its confirmation of the presence of liquid water on Mars.
In 2004, a particular rock was selected (called “El Capitan“), and Opportunity, using for the first time its grinding tool (Rock Abrasion Tool – RAT), discovered evidence of past water activities in the form of small spherical structures called “blueberries” that suggested the presence of hematite, a mineral that typically forms in water. Later in the mission, Opportunity found even stronger evidence of past water activity in the form of clay minerals.
The fallen rock
Opportunity’s discoveries went beyond just water, though. The rover also found evidence of Martian meteorites. After exiting the Endurance crater, Opportunity was sent in January 2005 to examine its heat shield.
While in his vicinity, he approached an object immediately suspected and later confirmed to be of meteoric origin. The meteorite was called “Heat Shield Rock” (with reference to the heat shield) and was the first found on another planet or natural satellite.
Challenges, challenges, and even more challenges
Of course, Opportunity’s mission wasn’t without its difficulties. In 2005, the rover became stuck while climbing a sand dune about 30 cm high for several weeks. The dune was bitterly titled “Purgatory“, but engineers were able to successfully free it.
Then, in late June 2007, a series of dust storms began filling the Martian atmosphere. The drastic reduction of energy represented the main problem caused by the dense dust in the atmosphere blocking 99% of direct sunlight.
The storm is approaching
In June 2018, a large sandstorm was noticed expanding by the Mars Color Imager instrument of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, right in the Opportunity area, forcing JPL operators to interrupt any scientific mission and shut down all non-essential tools due to the lower energy input provided by solar panels.
This dust storm darkened the sky much more than the 2007 storm with significantly more Sun blockage than that which occurred 11 years earlier. Since June 10, 2018, after more than 600 commands were sent to communicate, Opportunity has given no signs of life.
Most likely the low temperatures reached during the dust storm damaged the “Mission Clock”, which consequently does not allow the rover to contact the Earth again.
My battery is low and it’s getting dark.
On Feb. 13, 2019, after 835 unsuccessful connection attempts, NASA officially announced the end of the mission. But while Opportunity may no longer actively explore Mars, its legacy lives on.
The rover inspired countless people around the world to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, and its discoveries will continue to inform our understanding of Mars and the potential for life beyond Earth.
In conclusion, Opportunity provided strong evidence regarding the primary objectives of the science mission, the Opportunity Mars rover was a groundbreaking mission that exceeded all expectations and transformed our understanding of the Red Planet.
Its discoveries of water and evidence of ancient habitability opened up new avenues of exploration, inspiring generations of scientists to continue pushing the boundaries of what we know about our universe. While Opportunity may no longer be actively exploring Mars, its legacy will continue to inspire and inform future missions for years to come.