A Look Back at Opportunity: The Little Rover That Could

Photo: Twitter/ @CNN

You probably heard the news that the Opportunity Rover (nicknamed “Oppy” by NASA) was finally pronounced dead and its mission over in February of 2019. The little Mars rover was originally designed to last for a 90-day mission, but she held on, working and sending back invaluable data for 14 years and 300 days. Here’s a look back at the work of Oppy, NASA’s favorite robot.

Photo: Twitter/ @nytimes

Launch Day: July 7, 2003. Landing Day: January 25th, 2004.

NASA launched Opportunity (also known as MER-B, or Mars Exploration Rover- B) on July 7, 2003,  and she reached Mars on January 25th, 2004. Opportunity’s launch came in tandem with that of its twin, named Spirit.

Spirit launched three weeks earlier than Opportunity and touched down on the other side of the planet. Both were part of NASA’s larger Exploration Rover Mission. While both rovers were only supposed to last 90 days, Spirit went above and beyond too, lasting until 2010: a lifespan of seven years.

Photo: Wikipedia

Opportunity landed on Mars’ Meridiana Planum, with a mission of studying Mars’ geology. She landed in Eagle crater and traveled outward toward Endurance crater, finally making it to the Victoria and Endeavor craters. In all, the little robot traveled over 28 miles of the surface of Mars.

Little Oppy ran a marathon (and more) on Mars.

Mission and Accomplishments

In the rover’s 20+ miles and 14 years of life, she accomplished a great deal. Her main mission was to perform periodic geologic analyses. The idea behind these analyses was to try and determine if water had ever existed on Mars. A secondary part of the mission was to evaluate what kinds of minerals were available on Mars. Both parts of the mission would serve to corroborate data that NASA had collected from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Photo: Flickr/ Anna & Michal

After landing in the crater, one of the first things Opportunity did was take panoramic photos of the site and investigate soil and rock samples. These samples allowed scientists to make hypotheses about the presence of hematite in the Martian soil, and therefore the possibility of a former presence of water on Mars.

After landing, Opportunity also examined the impact site of her own heat shield and discovered an intact meteorite, now known as the Heat Shield Rock.

After the work in the Eagle crater, Opportunity moved on to investigate other craters.  During her explorations, she once became stuck in a sand dune, and scientists on Earth worked for six weeks to figure out the best plan for freeing her from this predicament. Their efforts, directing the rover forward only centimeters at a time, eventually freed her.

Photo: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

She went on to keep sampling and sending back invaluable information to scientists on Earth and recharging her cells using solar power.

The End of the Mission

In June of 2018, a huge, planet-wide dust storm engulfed Mars. This dust storm completely covered the rover’s solar panels and prevented her from generating enough power to keep moving and working. NASA lost contact with Opportunity and hoped to regain contact after the storm subsided.

Photo: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The last message that Opportunity sent showed how dark it was getting on Mars: in scientific parlance, the “highest atmospheric opacity” that scientists had ever seen.

The storm ended in October of 2018, but Opportunity stayed silent. NASA scientists continued to hope that winds would blow the sand off the rover’s solar panels and allow her to charge her batteries and power up. The team on Earth detected wind in Opportunity’s vicinity in January of 2018 and started sending messages and commands in an attempt to wake the rover.

None of these messages were received or responded to. On February 12, 2019, NASA decided to declare an official end to the mission. They held a press conference to express gratitude and appreciation for the little rover that could.

Photo: Twitter/ @EHOVEstem

The scientists on earth stopped trying to wake Oppy up and sent one last signal to her: the song “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday, which ends with the lines, “I’ll find you in the morning sun / and when the light is new / I’ll be looking at the moon / but I’ll be seeing you.”

This was a fitting end and tribute to the little robot, so far away, who had taught Earth-bound scientists so much about Mars and the rest of our solar system.