After nearly 15 years of faithful service and discovery, NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover mission came to an end this week. Launched in 2003 it landed on Mars’s Meridiani Planum on Jan. 25, 2003. When it last contacted mission control on June 10, 2018 it was under it had ambled across 28 miles (45 km) of dust, dunes, hills and rocks, making major discoveries along the way and sending back gobs of photos that made you feel like you were along for the ride.
Opportunity Rover completes Mars mission. Great summary of its travels on the Red Planet.
We’d still be there were it not for a planet encircling dust storm that began in late May last year. Dust eventually grew so thick at the rover’s location it turned day into night and robbed the roving robot of the solar energy it needed to recharge its batteries to stay warm and maintain its instruments during nights of –100° F temperatures. NASA folks tried all summer and fall to contact Opportunity, hoping that an errant breeze would dust the solar panel of the storm’s debris. But by mid-winter, after months of silence, it was time to say farewell. Appropriately, Perseverance Valley became the rover’s final resting spot.
Opportunity, like its sister, Spirit, was designed to operate 90 Martian days or Sols, which are 39 minutes longer than an Earth day, and drive 1,000 yards (1,000 meters) but despite the harsh environment hung 60 time longer than its expiration date! Having had recent problems with my 5-year-old car in Earth’s relatively benign environment, should NASA ever decide to start making automobiles, I’ll be first in line to put my money down.
During its Martian tour, Opportunity discovered abundant evidence for liquid water on Mars and the warmer, denser atmospheric conditions that go along with it. One of its first finds were small pellets nicknamed “blueberries” made of hematite, an iron-rich oxide common on Earth. They appear to be concretions that formed as water percolated through porous iron-rich rock. The dissolved material accumulated into layered spheres similar to hematite-rich spheres found on Earth. When the rock eroded, the harder blueberries tumbled out in turn.
Other highlights included the discovery of the first meteorite on another planet, a big hunk of iron-nickel named Heat Shield Rock. Much later in 2011, the rover spied a bright vein of gypsum (calcium carbonate), a mineral that forms when water dissolves calcium from volcanic rocks along the rim of Endeavour Crater.The rover also found outcrops at the crater of what appeared to be sedimentary rock cut and filled with veins of material delivered by water there plus further evidence of warmer, wetter climes at Endurance Crater (below).
During its long life, Opportunity took more than 228,000 photos and set the record for the longest one-day drive on Mars of 721 feet (220 meters) on March 20, 2005. I encourage you to spend a few minutes on the video just to get a sense of how much ground the rover covered. With its demise, Curiosity is now the sole operational rover on Mars. Because it runs on heat (converted into electricity) created by the decay of radioactive plutonium, it’s expected to power on for years to come no matter the weather as it climbs the slopes of Mt. Sharp in Gale Crater.
Curiosity has its own Twitter account and yesterday paid tribute to Opportunity with a poem:
It seems to me you lived your life like a rover in the wind
never fading with the sunset
when the dust set in.
Your tracks will always fall here,
among Mars’ reddest hills;
your candle’s burned out long before
your science ever will.
#ThanksOppy. I owe you so much.