“In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it.” –John Archibald Wheeler
Sometimes, things get difficult. Sometimes, there are challenges you have to face that you never even expected, much less were prepared for. And sometimes, it seems like there’s no point in even holding on to hope that things will get better. But as long, as The National would tell you, as you’re no
you’ve still got something worth striving for. Even if there’s something newer, shinier, and more powerful than you.
Even on Mars.
Nine years (and three days) ago, on January 24, 2004, Mars Opportunity began its mission on the surface of the red planet.
Despite plenty of advance testing here on Earth and countless simulations anticipating what Opportunity would face, no one quite knew exactly how the rover would perform once it arrived on the Martian surface. And at a typical distance of over 20 light-minutes from its controllers, it needed to be able to make its own driving decisions and maneuvers.
And designed for a 90-day mission and 2.5 million turns of its wheels, powered by its on-board solar panels, only time would tell exactly what Opportunity would actually wind up doing.
But it’s been more than 3000 days, over 70 million turns of its wheels, and a lifetime’s worth of discoveries that make Opportunity the most successful planetary science mission of all-time. And it’s still going. The panorama above — shown in both true color (top) and false color (bottom) to highlight the different features in the terrain — is just one of a myriad of images from this unforgettable mission.
While the world has moved on to focus on Curiosity, the latest generation of Mars rover, Opportunity is still going strong, and has a lifetime of achievement behind it. Let’s take a look back.
It discovered the very first meteorite — an iron-nickel fragment — on the surface of another world.
It exhibits the same surface features that windblown sand creates on iron-nickel meteorites found in the desert here on Earth: exactly what you’d expect to find on Mars.
Since it began its journey at Eagle Crater on Mars in 2004, Opportunity has taken an unprecedented journey to some spectacular places, including Endurance crater,
where Opportunity was able, for the first time, to take a look at some of the sedimentary history of the Martian surface. The hills and cliffs inside this crater are so steep that pieces of Mars’ geological history were revealed, as the photo of Burns cliff inside the crater shows.
It also visited a slew of other interesting features, including the beautiful Erebus crater,
The deep and spectacular Victoria Crater, with one of its many outcroppings (Cape St. Vincent) shown below,
and in the area surrounding Victoria, Opportunity found “Martian blueberries,” or hematite spheres that look to be evidence of past water on Mars.
Blueberries were found at other sites, too, but after visiting Victoria crater, the decision was made that Opportunity would run the first Mars-half-marathon, and head to the gigantic Endeavour crater, despite the fact that its solar panels were only operating at 50%, thanks to being covered in years of Martian dust.
But a simple gust of wind came along and partially cleared off the panels, giving the eponymous rover the opportunity to make the spectacular journey in less time than anyone had anticipated.
Last year, during Martian winter, it took the most spectacular panorama of its entire journey: an 817-image-composite of Greeley Haven.
And the journey continues. The half-marathon has pushed Opportunity’s total mileage up over 22 miles so far, which means that later this year, if all goes well, it should become the most-traveled vehicle on any world beyond Earth, breaking the 30+ year old record held by a Russian lunar rover.
And if you want to know what a 3-year, half-marathon journey looks like, from Victoria to Endeavour craters, the Opportunity team has put a spectacular video together.
It’s the longest-running-rover in history, and it’s still full of life. As she enters her tenth year on the red planet, don’t forget about Opportunity, the Methuselah of Mars!