What A Wonderful Opportunity It Was

The shadow of the Opportunity Rover stretches across the barren Martian landscape in this self-portrait taken with the rover’s front hazard-avoidance camera on July 26, 2004. NASA/ JPL-Caltech

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.

BB-sized gray-blue “blueberry” concretions in the tracks of Opportunity rover on Mars. NASA / JPL-Caltech

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.

Opportunity examines a mineral vein made of gypsum named Homestake in November 2011. The vein is about 18 inches (45 cm) long and the width of a thumb. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU
Heat Shield Rock, named for Opportunity’s heat shield which was located nearby, was the first meteorite found on a planet other than Earth. The photo was taken in Jan. 2005. NASA / JPL-Caltech

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).

The Burns Cliff slope of Endurance Crater that was explored by Opportunity shows evidence of ancient dunes (along the bottom left), ground-water flow (middle banded section) and flowing streams where the rocky top meets the smooth rock below it. NASA / JPL-Caltech

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.

A favorite of mine. Opportunity photographs a partial solar eclipse of the sun by the moon Phobos. NASA / JPL-Caltech

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.

. I owe you so much.

(Awww …)

Perched on the rim of Endeavour Crater, Opportunity spies a desolate Martian landscape. NASA / JPL-Caltech

8 Responses

    1. astrobob

      Damn! You’re right — aaargh! I was shuffling around a bunch of pix in an archive and inadvertently selected the wrong one. Many thanks, BC!

      1. In-Sight is still the head banner of your entry Bob, not that’s there’s anything wrong with that now that it’s about to dril 5 metres down and take Mars’ temperature 🙂

  1. kevan hubbard

    Joined the ranks of other dead husks in space but unlike pioneer 10 and 11 perhaps human eyes will see opportunity, Viking,etc, again….if we ever set foot on Mars?proving much more a a challenge than I anticipated as a space loving child!

    1. astrobob

      Kevan,
      Yes, I think we will get to see those rovers again. One of my big hopes is that we send people to Mars in my lifetime.

  2. Edward M Boll

    I do not know what I saw last night. Very red near the western horizon. Too bright for Mars. Mag about minus 3. Probably a slow, low flying craft. I was going to recheck sky again but fell asleep. Venus and Jupiter look reddish near the horizon but I know that they are in the eastern morning sky. I am sensing a possible evening for Wirtanen. It would be the first time in February.

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