In what was originally planned to be a three-month exploration of the surface of the planet Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover has instead lasted for 10 years, thanks in part to the Martian winds that blow on the planet. NASA’s scientists celebrated the rover’s 10 year stay on the red planet at a news conference on Thursday, and it is still showing no signs of stopping its discoveries.
It was on January 24, 2004 that Opportunity, weighing 384 pounds and measuring five feet in both length and width, landed on Mars at a place called Meridiani Planum. Scientists handling the exploration are surprised that the rover lasted this long. Every year, Opportunity goes farther and farther covering Mars’ terrain.
Based on initial calculations, the rover was expected to go for just about a kilometer before its solar-powered batteries ran out. However, due to fortuitous events, specifically the Martian winds which periodically remove dusts from accumulating in the rover’s solar panel, the vehicle is provided with ample power every year. Now, instead of just one kilometer, Opportunity has been able to cover 38.7 kilometers and take around 170,000 pictures that scientists on Earth have utilized to analyze the surface of Mars.
Sadly, Opportunity’s twin rover, Spirit, got stuck in a sand dune in 2009 and communications went totally dead in 2010 due to the fact that its solar panels failed to position properly toward the sun during the winter months.
The latest discovery by Opportunity, as if timed to celebrate its decade stay on the red planet, is a small rock that seemed to appear from out of nowhere. The mysterious rock was not in a picture of a landscape taken December 26, 2013. A similar picture of the landscape taken January 8, 2014 showed the seemingly doughnut-shaped rock now included in the picture. According to the principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Dr. Steve Squyres, “It looks like a jelly doughnut, white around the outside, red in the middle.”
Speaking before reporters marking the 10 years of the solar-powered Opportunity on Mars, Squyres said that upon closer investigation what they’ve found is clearly a rock and scientists named it “Pinnacle Island.” Apparently it got to its present position when the rover did a pirouette turn on a hill knocking loose the rock and allowing it to roll downhill. Initial examination by Opportunity revealed that the rock is made of sulphur and very high concentrations of manganese and magnesium.
The overall physical condition of the rover Opportunity remains good notwithstanding two scientific instruments that are no longer functioning, a stiff robotic arm and a lame wheel. Project manager Dr. John L. Callas likewise said the rover also experienced “amnesia moment” probably caused by aging memory chips.
Despite its many discoveries and conditions that can still allow it to cover several kilometers, Opportunity’s career on the red planet may soon end due to financial concerns. This spring, officials at NASA will review each spacecraft that has lived beyond its original mission. The cost of maintaining the operation of Opportunity is $14 million per year. Michael Meyer, a lead scientist of the Mars exploration program of NASA said “We have to weigh how much money we have and what missions are most productive.”
However, before NASA pulls the plug on Opportunity, the rover is headed for more adventures and discoveries and to check if Mars was once capable of hosting life. “We have an exciting period of discoveries ahead of us…As long as the rover keeps going, we’ll keep going.” And as long as the Martian winds keep blowing to remove dust from accumulating in its solar panel, the decade old Mars rover Opportunity will also keep on going for the sake of NASA and humanity.
By Roberto I. Belda
The New York Times