Scientists Remember the Mars Rover Opportunity as Hope Fades for Its Resurrection


Tracks remaining on Mars by the Possibility rover, photographed on November 12, 2013.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A brutal dust storm engulfed Mars final summertime. The planet-broad tempest spared the nuclear-run Curiosity rover, but the more mature, photo voltaic-run Chance rover shut down as the thick dust blocked light from the Solar. Opportunity has remained silent since June ten, 2018, irrespective of NASA’s hundreds of attempts to call it. When a windy time on Mars started in November, experts hoped that gusts could possibly very clear debris from its photo voltaic panels, but that hope seems to have been in vain. NASA carries on to deliver restoration instructions, but regrettably, it seems the Chance mission has at lastappear to an end.

At the similar time, 2019 marks a historic milestone for the rover, which formally reached its 15th 12 months on Mars on January 25. This far exceeds the rover’s initial predicted lifespan of ninety days. Alongside one another with the Spirit rover, whose conclusion came again in 2010, the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission marks one particular of the most essential scientific programs of the modern day era, finding proof that Mars was at the time covered in liquid and sending again iconic illustrations or photos of the planet’s area.

In honor of Oppy’s fifteenth birthday, and with the information that we might hardly ever hear from the rover all over again, we questioned some researchers from the MER mission and elsewhere to share their ideas and recollections about Possibility, Spirit, and their legacy.

Steve Squyres, principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) and professor at Cornell University:

I have not given up still. We have a checklist of issues to attempt, and we’re not accomplished until we attempt everything on it. But we’re finding toward the bottom of the record, so it is an correct time to get started contemplating about these items. As significantly as it feels, it actually feels fantastic… It’s an honorable demise. [The rovers] aren’t immortal. You know that you’re likely to get rid of them sooner or later. To have a 90-day mission very last for fifteen years, and then stop as a consequence of a one particular of the most ferocious dust storms to hit Mars in a incredibly prolonged time, we can stroll away with our heads held higher. The mission exceeded much further than what I could have predicted.

The legacy is tough… The legacy is the legacy of both Sprit and Chance, and the spirit and the legacy of the staff that designed them in the initially spot, the workforce of engineers, experts, professionals, leaders, and money people today. The purpose it’s been these a achievement is for the reason that of what they did fifteen many years in the past. That is in which the credit belongs.

On the scientific legacy, Mars turned out to be a much additional attention-grabbing location than I expected. It improved the way human beings seem at Mars. The a few landings that preceded ours were being all on these flat, barren plains—on purpose—because they ended up the safest locations to land. Which is all the land we observed. That is what got me so energized about executing a rover mission. We have these minimal scenic rovers that have climbed mountains and descended into craters. Mars has become a true scenic, wonderful, attention-grabbing put in the perception that you can envision currently being there and walking in the rovers’ tracks and viewing what they’ve noticed. That modifications our point of view.

The 3rd component of the legacy is the influence these missions have experienced on youngsters. A person of my fondest goals, and I know this has likely happened, is an 8-12 months-old who watched television in 2004 the night time we landed and believed to themselves, “Whoa, I assume that is cool, but I can do improved.” I see evidence that the mission has carried out that to some diploma, inspiring youthful people to go after professions in science, engineering, and know-how with their own dreams.

Mosaic selfie demonstrates Opportunity’s dust-absolutely free solar panels in December 2004.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Kirsten Siebach, planetary geologist, Rice University:

Individuals rovers ended up the trailblazers. They experienced a big impression. Obtaining Chance on Mars has intended that we have new images from the surface of one more world because I was in large school. Our understanding of Mars has expanded, and I consider that’s often preserved a stage of exhilaration and interest. It’s been an inspiration for individuals of us functioning on Mars, pupils, and any person in the community following along. It will make Mars accessible and close-by… I think the legacy is critical for the strategy of exploration, and motivating a era to consider we’re so near to another earth, and that we’re continuing to examine the Photo voltaic Method and finding out model new items each and every working day…

Anyone talks about the incredible engineering that makes it possible for us to have a robot driving on one more planet without having a mechanic in absurd conditions for 15 decades. That’s an incredible accomplishment. But for me and the people on the group, there is all of people 15 decades. There ended up people today listed here on Earth on science and engineering teams finding with each other three to five instances a week addressing the development from the day ahead of, and thoroughly programming what Opportunity would do the upcoming working day. For that staff, it is additional than just a robot, and we’ll miss out on it…. It’s been a great deal of enjoyable to perform on, we’re delighted it’s been so successful. And that stage of dust was surely an honorable loss of life if we never listen to from it again.

Kevin Lewis, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins College:

I hope Possibility arrives back again on line! I was on the MER workforce again in grad university (2003-2009), which is a testomony to how very long the mission lasted—15 years is about 3 consecutive Ph.D lengths! Opportunity was accomplishing great science up till it missing call, and exploring new rock models that it in no way ought to have been able to get to by its unique design and style parameters. Both Spirit and Prospect wholly revolutionized the way we do science on Mars, and it is protected to say that we would not have Curiosity without the need of the too much to handle successes of the MER mission. Spirit and Chance *figuratively* paved the way for Curiosity and upcoming rovers in the course of the Photo voltaic Process, by means of their groundbreaking technological and scientific achievements.

Possibility captured visuals of Martian clouds passing overhead on October two, 2006.
GIF: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

Tanya Harrison, planetary scientist and director of research at Arizona State University’s Place Engineering and Science Initiative, and science crew collaborator on the Mars Exploration Rover Possibility:

Opportunity wildly surpassed any anticipations we could have experienced for her. She unlocked the mystery of the hematite sign detected from orbiters ahead of her, taught us about each watery and windy earlier situations on Mars, and drove farther than any other rover further than Earth. No issue what the Red Planet appeared to toss at her, she and her intelligent crew of engineers managed to find a way around it—until this last global dust storm. But it’s only fitting that the thing that was at last able to get Oppy out was the strongest dust storm we’ve ever noticed on Mars. Now she can rest, being aware of she did humanity happy as our minimal robotic emissary.

Ashwin Vasavada, Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity rover challenge scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

The Opportunity rover was a authentic inspiration for me during the progress of the Curiosity rover, due to the fact it confirmed how a digital industry geologist definitely could piece with each other the story of an historic surroundings by studying the history held in the rocks. Historic drinking water flowing across the surface area, playas in amongst dunes, groundwater soaking the rocks, this kind of superior stuff… it all kept me heading in the course of the hardest days of having Curiosity to Mars.

Photographs like this, which display formations possible designed by flowing liquid, furnished scientists with clues to Mars’ moist earlier. Taken by Possibility on July seventeen, 2004.
Graphic: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor of The Planetary Culture:

Spirit and Possibility genuinely blazed a new path for community communications about an active science mission when Steve Squyres and Jim Bell built the alternative to make all of the photographs available to the general public when they arrived on Earth. They wished to make sure that students could function with the info, and that it did not have to be on some password-protected server… Jim and Steve mentioned, “No, we want the public to get pleasure from the journey the very same way we are.” That choice was so visionary. It established this enormous global neighborhood of folks who had been able to follow the every day aspiration of exploring a further earth via the eyes of Spirit and Opportunity. Folks would make mosaics and animations, examine the rocks they were being observing, and what the science group was accomplishing. In a large amount of occasions, persons in Europe would see the illustrations or photos right before the American team woke up—Squyres like checking these boards because it was simpler than working with [the server].

Cassini’s workforce experienced no prepare to share their images in this way. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), owning seen the Mars Exploration Rover mission claimed, ok, we’re going to share Cassini’s photos as well. Numerous other missions followed in their footsteps—all of the Mars-landed missions, like Curiosity, Phoenix, and Insight. It is motivated the European Place Company to be a lot more open with their graphic data—their composition is different than NASA’s structure, considering that the institutions construct and provide the cameras—but the they had been capable to begin sharing a camera termedthe VMCthat shares photos [from Mars] as quickly as they hit Earth, and Rosetta shared their NavCam photographs rather immediately. Juno and New Horizons shared their information rather immediately… It experienced a profound affect on the way missions shared their knowledge with the community.

I assume it is form of appealing that when Option originally went silent, a great deal of men and women had been completely ready to write it off immediately. That may perhaps have been a extra pragmatic detail to do, but it didn’t consider into account the experience of the men and women who experienced been preserving this spacecraft alive for so lengthy. I feel it is required for the workforce to exhaust every single probability so they could come to feel some closure on the mission. Some of them I’m confident don’t want to give up… It will take a substantial emotional financial investment to preserve these missions going. I guess I hope Possibility does shock us and comes again. I’m guessing it probably will not, and I’m sorry to the engineers for their loss. Folks will have to have to get the time to mourn, and realize that it is emotionally difficult.

Abby Fraeman, Opportunity rover deputy challenge scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

I’ll miss out on, initially and foremost, just interacting with the workforce on a typical foundation. These individuals have been functioning on this mission for a seriously very long time, and even although men and women have still left and other folks have arrive in, there is this really superb sense of camaraderie. I can acknowledge every person by their voice. I know we can count on individuals when we face troubles or tough science queries. It is genuinely pleasurable to function by all these complications with the people involved. I’ll also pass up waking up every single early morning and seeing what the rover sent down, what the newest shots are. Each individual day you get to see a little something no human has ever witnessed just before.

I have a really personal story with the rover. I was in significant faculty when Spirit and Chance landed. There was a software operate by The Planetary Culture identified as the Student Astronaut Method which introduced superior schoolers out to JPL to be there the evening the rover landed. I was there the night time that Prospect landed, and it was an amazing working experience that impressed me to go into planetary science.

The way both of those Spirit and Opportunity transformed Mars science was really profound… It gave us a new perspective on the world we didn’t have in the year 2000. The rovers have been sent to follow the drinking water, and before we go there we didn’t have any definitive proof that there had at any time been liquid water on Mars in the past. It was the 1st pictures from Oppy, and later illustrations or photos from Spirit, that have been incontrovertible proof that Mars experienced a various local climate that could guidance liquid h2o on the surface area. It opened a complete new parameter place for queries we could ask about Martian evolution. These inquiries ended up answered by the Curiosity rover, a even larger new rover with far more refined instruments, and some of them will be answered by the sample return missions some will have to have long run missions to response. We did not even know what issues to request prior to we experienced the results from Spirit and Possibility.

I’m just thrilled that it lasted as prolonged as it’s been. It is a celebration for how effective and groundbreaking this mission was.

Opportunity’s shadow, November 26, 2014.
Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech