NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover Exceeds All Expectations: Reaches 5,000 Sols

The Mars rover Opportunity has reached a milestone. February 15, 2018, marked 5,000 sols (Martian days) that Opportunity has been on Mars when its original mission was only supposed to last 90 sols. The Opportunity was one of the first rovers that NASA sent to Mars and it is now part of a much bigger plan for the Red Planet.

By refocusing our space program on Mars for America’s future, we can restore the sense of wonder and adventure in space exploration that we knew in the summer of 1969. We won the moon race; now it’s time for us to live and work on Mars, first on its moons and then on its surface. – Buzz Aldrin

The History of Opportunity

Opportunity in the JPL lab. Image source: Wikipedia

Mars Opportunity started its life where most other rovers begin their life; in the laboratory at JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab). Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, were built in 2002 with the mission to categorize rock samples on Mars, look at geological processes in Martain rocks, and check the mineralogy of those samples. This mission was designed to help NASA understand if there was ever a point where Mars was able to sustain life at any point in its existence. By examining the rock makeup and processes NASA will be able to tell if water was ever once on Mars (which was recently discovered) so Opportunity and Spirit were extremely important to our understanding of Mars.

Spirit and Opportunity both launched in 2003. Opportunity was scheduled to launch on June 28, 2003, but was pushed back by 9 days due to weather. On July 7, 2003, at about 9:00 am Opportunity launched out of Cape Canaveral, Florida towards Mars. The journey to Mars took about 7 months total when it landed on Mars on January 25, 2004. Opportunity landed on Mars at the coordinates 1.9462°S 354.4734°E which was actually the location of a crater hit, but it was not planned.

Spirit, on the other hand, had a different experience with launching and landing. Spirit launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 10, 2003. It landed on the Red Planet on January 4, 2004, on the other side of the planet of Opportunity. Spirit also landed in a crater caused by a meteor named Columbia Memorial Station, named after the astronauts who died when the shuttle Columbia blew up. Colombia Memorial Station was possibly a lake bed at some point, so it was of great interest to NASA.

Both Spirit and Opportunity’s mission was only expected to last 90 sols, but NASA and the people at JPL knew the rovers would last much longer because the rovers were capable of cleaning their solar panels. By cleaning their own solar panels the rovers were able to maintain power, and maintaining power means the rovers were able to continue their mission longer.

Opportunity’s Twin’s Death

The rover Spirit. Image source: Wikipedia

The Mars rover Spirit is the twin of Opportunity, who landed on Mars about 20 days before Opportunity did. Just like Opportunity, Spirit had a 90 sol “shelf life” but exceeded that by quite a bit. Throughout its life on Mars, Spirit ran into some issues and problems that ultimately led to Spirit’s death:

  • January 2004: Spirit stopped all communications with mission control due to a flash memory issue and had to be sent software to fix the problem to bring Spirit back up and running
  • March 2006: Spirit broke one of its wheels but was still functional (the dragging wheel actually uncovered soil that led scientists to believe Mars once had some sort of climate some time ago)
  • 2007 dust storms: Starting in June, Mars experienced multiple dust storms that affected both Spirit and Opportunity that greatly affected their power levels since they could not power their solar panels
    • This caused the need for hibernation until the dust storms went away
  • May 2009: Spirit became trapped in soft soil and dust began building upon its solar panels
  • March 2010: Spirit sent its last communication and remains dead to this day

Opportunity’s Life on Mars

Heat Shield Rock, the first meteorite found on Mars. Credit: Wikipedia

Opportunity is still going strong on Mars after over 5,000 sols and has made some valuable discoveries in its life on the Red Planet:

  • Both Opportunity and Spirit discovered the common occurrence of dust devils on Mars and learned about how Mars’ lower atmosphere by watching how the dust traveled
  • Opportunity’s findings on Martain rocks indicated to scientists that Mars once had water on Mars, leading to follow up missions
  • Spirit actually learned that water had somehow interacted with magma
  • Opportunity noted how the wind has shifted on Mars historically by investigating Martain dunes
  • Opportunity found several meteorites on Mars, the first being named Heat Shield Rock because it was discovered near Opportunity’s heat shield (pictured above)
  • Opportunity also learned from rock records that Mars was once a habitable planet (the oldest rocks to show this were about 4 billion years old)

When Opportunity studied the rocks and soils on Mars scientists were able to tell that water had once existed on Mars. Scientists and researchers had already been aware of it thanks to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Odyssey mission, and the Phoenix lander but Opportunity helped solidify that belief. Recently researchers learned about large reservoirs of ice found under the Martain surface near the equator from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which finally gave NASA and the rest of the world the proof they needed about water on Mars.

Opportunity is still researching the Martain surface learning what it can about the soil and rock samples it comes across. In its 5,000 sols, Opportunity has traveled 27 miles, making it the record holder for the longest distance traveled outside of Earth (a record previously held by the lunar rover Lunokhod 2).

Why Is Opportunity Important?

The rover Opportunity. Credit: The Verge

Opportunity, just like all the other Mars’ technology, is extremely important. Mar’s will be, in hopefully a very short time, the first planet that humans will visit. Mars is a historical and monumental feat that will change history. By studying Mars we will not only learn about its origins but the origins of Earth and possibly even our solar system.

There is so much that Mars will be able to teach us, and at some point, Mars might even become another planet we colonize. So Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, the Phoenix lander, Mariner, Phobos, the MRO, and Odyssey are all setting the stage for humans to travel there someday. It may seem like a pipe dream, but it is hopefully our future.

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