The Opportunity Rover Roamed Mars for 14 Years — Here’s What It Taught Us

Twitter was in mourning yesterday over the loss of the NASA Opportunity rover on Mars. It’s a natural reaction. The rover was only designed to last three months, but it actually marched along for more than 14 years. Only an epic dust storm last summer finally felled the solar-powered rover. NASA called the rover again and again, but it never more responded to Earth.

Presidential Inspiration

The plucky rover inspired so many of us that former President Barack Obama joined in on the conversation. For perspective, Opportunity was on Mars four years before Obama took office in 2008, and lasted two years beyond Obama’s two presidential terms ending in 2016. Goes to show you just how long Opportunity’s run lasted.

“Don’t be sad it’s over, be proud it taught us so much,” Obama wrote. “Congrats to all the men and women of @NASA on a @MarsRovers mission that beat all expectations, inspired a new generation of Americans, and demands we keep investing in science that pushes the boundaries of human knowledge.”

And did Opportunity ever push boundaries. It (along with twin rover Spirit, which sent its last message to Earth in 2010) discovered ample evidence of ancient water on the Red Planet. Water was such an exciting find that NASA sent another rover to Mars in 2012 — Curiosity — and next year it will send the Mars 2020 rover. Curiosity and Mars 2020 are searching for habitability. But Opportunity and Spirit pointed the way first. In fact, they found so many examples of water that you can’t list them all in a short story.

“It was the first rover to identify and characterize sedimentary rocks on a planet other than Earth,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement yesterday. “Opportunity also discovered small spheres of hematite nicknamed ‘blueberries’ that formed late from rising, acidic groundwater. Once Opportunity reached the rim of Endeavour crater, the rover found white veins of the mineral gypsum — a telltale sign of water that traveled through underground fractures.”

Looking Back on Opportunity Rover Tracks: This scene from the panoramic camera on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity looks back toward part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater that the rover drove along, heading southward, during the summer of 2014.

Overcoming Difficulties on Mars

By the way, Opportunity’s longevity didn’t come by accident. Sure, the rover was only designed to last a few months, but tender love and care from engineers kept it lasting a lot longer. Perhaps my favorite example is that JPL drove Opportunity backward for most of the rover’s time on Mars. That’s because the rover’s right-front wheel sometimes drew more current than the other five wheels. So the drivers, being cautious sorts, felt driving around butt-first was the best idea.

Opportunity also encountered literal obstacles. For example: There was the time in April 2005 when it got stuck in a sand ripple for several weeks. Cleverly, NASA named this location “Purgatory Dune” — but engineers also got to work here on Earth to help it escape that purgatory. They put a model Opportunity rover in a sand trap at JPL’s “Mars Yard” and found a way to safely drive Opportunity out from the rover-sucking sand drift.

Late in Opportunity’s lifetime, the rover’s old system faced memory problems (we guess humans aren’t the only ones who sometimes need to adapt to aging brains). JPL tried a few resets and eventually came up with a clever solution in 2015 — it would ask Opportunity to send back most information immediately to Earth, rather than requiring the rover to store its finds.

People all over the world united on Twitter yesterday to share their thoughts and memories of Opportunity, including the people at the center of it all — the Mars-roving team. On Medium, team member Tanya Harrison thanked one of her colleagues, Keri Bean, for bringing along “emotional support porgs” to hand off to people during the announcement of Opportunity’s operations ending. “[It’s] a beautiful reminder that these robotic missions, at their core, are wholly human,” Harrison wrote.

Opportunity Legacy

For me, Opportunity was an incredible feat because its lifespan just about spanned my entire time in science journalism. I lined up at a computer lab in January 2004 to watch its first pictures downloaded from Mars. In August 2008, around the same time I found my first permanent job in the industry, Opportunity embarked on an epic 3-year journey from Victoria Crater to Endeavour Crater. And it was still going strong in 2012 when I started full-time freelancing.

Through change, Opportunity was a constant companion. To be honest, it feels strange to strike out by myself without Opportunity by our virtual sides. But let’s remember this: While Opportunity’s mission is over, the data it sent back to Earth will live on. Scientists will continue plumbing its data for information on water. Teachers will keep showing its panoramas in classrooms to inspire the next generation of engineers. And more rovers and landers will go to Mars, seeking answers to the very science questions Opportunity brought up.

Inspiration was Opportunity’s greatest legacy, and we’re so grateful to the thousands of people who kept it going over the years. Thank you, Opportunity. It’s been a journey. So glad you brought us along.

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