“You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo” –Eminem
Here on Earth, a cold, frozen winter lasts three months, with the Sun’s rays pointed a maximum of 23.5 extra degrees away from your part of the Earth from normal.
On Mars, however, winters are even more severe.
With a slightly more severe axial tilt than Earth, an extra 78 million kilometers separating it from the Sun than our planet, and the coldest season of the year lasting more than 150 days, winters on Mars are a cold, lonely and yet very unique experience.
With its thin, rarefied atmosphere, the red planet gives us a bluish view of the Sun close to the horizon, a striking demonstration of how alien a world Mars truly is to us. But exploring, even for a robot, is impossible during winter. Even our best-engineered rovers cannot gather enough sunlight to power themselves during the winter, and need to hibernate.
Even the Opportunity rover, my favorite mission to the red planet, needs to go into hibernation every martian winter. Now in its unprecedented 9th year of operation on Mars, Opportunity has come farther than any human spacecraft ever has on the surface of another planet. Since January 25, 2004, Opportunity has traveled more than 34 kilometers in distance, powered only by the distant Sun.
And while we’re currently less than a month away from Curiosity — the next-generation in Mars roving — touching down on our desert-like neighbor, Opportunity has just awakened from its fifth Martian winter, at the rim of the largest crater ever visited by a rover on any world.
While I’m in “sleep mode,” I’m completely useless. But for this incredible workhorse of a rover, it used this time to snap an 817-snapshot panorama, which has been stitched together into the largest, most impressive landscape of Mars I’ve ever seen.
For the full, uncut, 124+ MB file, go here, but I’d like to take Opportunity’s masterpiece and showcase just a few of the amazing and impressive sights it offers us. This mosaic of 817 photos was taken from Greeley Haven, an uneven outcrop chosen as Opportunity’s hibernation location so that its solar panels could get the maximum amount of sunlight during this time.
Miles off in the horizon, you can see the sand dunes that define Mars’ landscape. (I highly recommend clicking on all of the images below individually, as they were sampled by me at full resolution from the original and are most impressive.)
The rarefied atmosphere ensures that the shapes and patterns in the dunes last much longer than they do here on Earth; these were virtually unchanged during Opportunity’s five stationary months at Greeley Haven.
The rocky, sandy hills in the distance cannot help themselves, but they remind me so much of the Arizona desert here on Earth that I had to showcase just one small, distant hill to show you the impressive resolution of Opportunity’s camera.
Opportunity also, in its panorama views, takes pictures of itself and its various components. After nine years on Mars, you very likely would not look this good, and perhaps Opportunity would have, either, if it didn’t get the most favorable gust of wind to ever occur on Mars (for humans), blowing a huge fraction of Martian dust off of the rover and boosting the amount of Sun its solar panels could absorb!
For me, personally, one of the most spectacular sights any robot can take is a shot of its own footprints. (Or, in this case, tire tracks/treadmarks.) Opportunity’s path to its outcrop tells a remarkable story of a robot fighting its way through tough terrain to its eventual goal.
As you can tell, to the right of the image above, Opportunity is even capable of doing donuts if it needs to, to orient itself in order to get where it wants to go. That’s a better turning radius than my car!
And finally, I wanted to give you an impression of just how impressive this panorama actually is, so I took just a small, thin slice — grabbing less than 3% of the total image — and I present it to you here, below.
So don’t brag to me about what you did last winter; I know a robot on Mars that has you beat! And hopefully, in the very near future, its next-generation successor will outclass even this remarkable workhorse.
Cheers to Opportunity and the entire team for nine years of amazing science; I can’t wait to see what Opportunity finds next!