Opportunity, the Mars robotic rover that stunned humanity by remaining operational for over ten years past it’s original mission date, powered off for the last time on Feb. 13, 2019; a final goodbye at the end of a 225-million kilometer journey.
Affectionately nicknamed ‘Oppy,’ the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) first-generation Mars rover spent 14 years and 46 days on the surface of the red planet. Originally designed to roam the Martian landscape for only 90 Earth days, Opportunity managed to extend its operational lifespan by using solar energy. In total, Oppy travelled a total of 45.16 kilometres on Mars, farther than any space exploration vehicle, robot or human, has walked on any celestial body.
Scientists and fans of Opportunity will remember it for verifying some of NASA’s most prominent discoveries of the last decade. It was Oppy that, in 2004, confirmed the ancient presence of hematite rocks on the surface of Mars, indicating, for the first time, that liquid water once covered the plant.
Before Opportunity’s descent upon Mars, the closest mankind had come to uncovering its secrets was through satellite images and stationary ‘landers.’ Opportunity, and its sister rover Spirit which got caught in a sand dune in 2009, enabled scientists to traverse the surface of Mars, collecting invaluable samples and data along the way.
Twenty-one months into its journey, Oppy circumvented the Victoria Crater, a massive 750-metre-wide hole in the Martian surface.
“The scientific allure is the chance to examine and investigate the compositions and textures of exposed materials in the crater’s depths for clues about ancient, wet environments,” NASA wrote in a 2007 press release. “As the rover travels farther down the slope, it will be able to examine increasingly older rocks in the exposed walls of the crater.”
After months of travel, the rover descended into the crater itself and recorded images of the comet Sliding Spring on its flight path over Mars. From the depths of the crater, Oppy examined new rocks unlike any of those ever observed on Mars. Using x-ray spectroscopy, a data collection tool which analyzes the interactions of radiation and matter, the rover was able to verify the presence of aluminum and silicon in the rock samples.
NASA last made contact with Oppy in June 2018 after a severe dust storm swept large amounts of sand across the rover’s solar panels. Reliant on the ability to remain in direct sunlight to charge its solar-powered batteries, Oppy’s energy stores were quickly depleted. Scientists lost full contact with the rover in Jan. 2019, and declared its mission was over two weeks later on Feb. 13. Both Opportunity and Spirit were part of NASA’s broader Mars rover missions, which include a total of four rovers with two additional robotic vehicles planned for launch in 2020.
Opportunity is survived by the Curiosity rover, which landed in Aug. 2016. According to NASA’s official website, Curiosity is the first of three planned missions that will continue the search for geological clues for the presence of liquid water. Another objective of equal, if not greater, value to NASA, is to determine whether those water-holding environments were ever conducive to life on Mars.
As Oppy’s robotic brothers and sisters continue their quest to better understand the red planet and the nature of life in the near solar system, the multitude of discoveries will only increase.