Eric Warner Staff Writer
“The first footfalls on Mars will mark a historic milestone, an enterprise that requires human tenacity matched with technology to anchor ourselves on another world” – Buzz Aldrin.
Earth has reached Mars, but it wasn’t with human feet; that achievement goes to the robots. On Feb. 12, NASA’s Mars rover, named the Opportunity, was officially declared to have ceased operations after contact was lost during a dust storm. Its mission was announced to be complete the day after, exceeding all expectations throughout its 15 yearlong lifespan.
Opportunity’s mission, along with its twin rover called Spirit, began on July 7, 2003 aboard a Delta II rocket as it left our planet for Mars. Their mission: To search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils for clues to past water activity on Mars. The rovers were targeted to sites on opposite sides of Mars that looked like they were affected by liquid water in the past. Opportunity landed at Meridiani Planum and Spirit landed at Gusev Crater, places where mineral deposits suggest that Mars had a wet history. Indeed, they did find out that Mars was once a similarly blue planet like Earth in its early years, with the rovers discovering signs of flowing water, a thick carbon-dioxide atmosphere, and clay minerals formed in neutral-pH water.
Both rovers were only expected to last for 90 days, but both Spirit and Opportunity continued their mission far past their original expectations. Spirit continued on for 6 years, traveling over 4.8 miles while taking about 125,000 images of Mars. In contrast, Opportunity roamed the red planet for 15 years traveling over 28 miles, making it the first marathoner of Mars (the typical distance of a marathon being 26 miles). Spirit’s mission was halted in 2009 when it got stuck in soft soil and was unable to free itself though it continued to monitor Mars from a stationary perspective. By 2010, communication with Spirit was lost and, while the crew at NASA attempted to make contact with the rover, Spirit’s mission was declared to be complete in 2011 with the rover receiving a formal farewell on Memorial Day of that year. Opportunity would continue their mission for 8 more years helping Earth understand more about the world and history of its dusty sibling, to the point that we know more about it than our own oceans.
Many in the science community responded sorrowfully to the news of Opportunity’s “death.” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was one of them, stating, “It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars, and when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration.” Science reporter Jacob Margolis was even able to relay the rovers last moments as it was beginning to be engulfed by the planet-wide dust storm in, appropriately enough, Perseverance Valley. Opportunity’s last contact with Earth in June of 2018 roughly translates to stating, “My battery is low and it’s getting dark”.
While these rovers were remotely operated by staff at NASA and weren’t designed to be sentient on their own, it certainly seems like they had some sort of will to continue their mission no matter the odds. They strove to explore and hopefully find some common traits between our two planets. With their courageous spirits, they offered an amazing opportunity to help discover if we were, at one time, not alone in the Milky Way. Whether it’s with the evidence of hematite, a mineral that can only form in water, or with the view of a truly alien sunset in a blue hue on the red planet, Opportunity and its sister Spirit have truly gone beyond the call of duty and helped us learn more about our seemingly lonely universe.