This month, NASA's rover Opportunity has been declared dead. Lost in one of the many dust storms on the Martian surface, the bot was launched long ago, in 2003, alongside his sister, Spirit. The pair would only work for about 90 days. Opportunity (often affectionately referred to as "Oppy") has managed to hang over 50 times, covering more than 28 km and making all kinds of major discoveries. It is also considered one of the greatest successes in the history of space exploration.
To be clear, Oppy has been out of use for almost a year at this stage. Due to a dust storm all over the planet last year, the rover was probably covered with a layer of dust that prevented it from absorbing enough of it. 39, solar energy to continue operating. He entered hibernation on June 12, 2018, with engineers and staff hoping that he would come back online after the storm, but that never happened.
It is difficult to say exactly what happened, but it is unlikely that it was damaged in the way we normally expected. Although the Martian storms are bad, the atmosphere is so thin that the winds do not have much real strength behind them. Nevertheless, it is possible that dust or small rocks or just about anything that has damaged an essential component – or that the panels are still covered with dust. In both cases, NASA has sent hundreds of "wake up" signals since then to meet the silence.
As could be expected after more than a decade of exploration, Opportunity has achieved phenomenal achievements. To date, he has gone further than any other mobile vehicle on any extraterrestrial surface. In 2015, he had a marathon – 26.2 miles. Heat Shield Rock, one of the first at Oppy, was the first meteorite ever found on another planet. Named because of its proximity to Opportunity's discarded heat shield, the stone was an exceptional discovery in itself, although it was certainly not what the rover had been sent to search for, in itself.
The biggest questions about Mars are whether she ever supported life. Now we are certain that Mars has had and has had liquid water. But by the time Oppy landed, NASA was just beginning to understand the nature of Martian geography – relatively speaking.
Early on, the team concluded that Opportunity had landed on what was once an ancient coastline. The evidence is complicated – involving detailed observations of rock and mineral formations – but extensive. Hematite, the brilliant gray stones that you might find in a new age store, are among the most powerful indicators. And Opportunity has found plenty.
The mineral is often formed when the water passes through the rocks, but can come from some types of vulcanism. However, over time, the rover discovered other obvious signs of water, including small spherical rocks called "spherules". These had an almost polished appearance and appeared in some unusual places, including on a bowl-shaped rock. The training was known as the "berry bowl" because the scientists, being some of the smartest and most observant on the planet, thought it looked a bit like a bowl of berries.
Curiosity has certainly aged a bit, now that the NASA suite has confirmed the presence of liquid water, but we can forget how revolutionary it was a few years ago, not to mention the effects of these types of discoveries on our understanding of the scarcity of life in the universe.
To the robot who turned 90 days in 15 years of exploration:
You have been and remain the opportunity of your life.
Rest well, rover. Your mission is over.
– Spirit and Oppy (@MarsRovers) February 13, 2019
The opportunity, and by extension, his companion, the Spirit, helped lay the foundation for further exploration of our nearest planetary neighbor. The red planet has long puzzled the minds of our parents, past and present. As our society prepares to settle on the planet in the coming decades, Opportunity will be remembered as the cornerstone of future exploration.
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