Goodbye, Opportunity?


Goodbye, Opportunity? Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, has been attracting human curiosity since times immemorable. Shining like a red star in our night skies, the planet has been named after the Roman God of war because of its blood-red colour which actually is the result of its iron oxide rich soil. The astronomer, Giovani Schiaparelli, thought that the Mars had oceans of water, and American govt. spent considerable time looking out for intelligent signals from Mars. The curiosity to know our nearest neighbor only grew since. We have come a long way from then, and are still being surprised by the secrets Mars has been unfolding to us. The first attempts to reach Mars were by the USSR, who launched Marsnik 1 in 1962, unfortunately the mission failed. The first successful mission to Moon, was the flyby by NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft that flew by Moon in 1964. Since then NASA has sent many missions to the red planet, while other space agency’s like ESA, ISRO and ROSCOSMOS have also contributed to the understanding of it.

Mars Exploration Program

One of the major attempts by NASA to understand Mars, was the Mars Exploration Program. This program aims at sending rovers, orbiters, and landers to Mars to look for signs of water, organic compounds that would point to early signs of life or at least the fossils of ancient life, and geology of Mars. Under this program NASA has sent Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, Spirit Rover, Oppurtunity Rover, and Pheonix lander. These have contributed a lot to our present knowledge of the planet. 

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Left to right: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Spirit, Opportunity, and Pheonix

Spirit (MER-2 or MER-A)  and Curiosity (MER-1 or MER-B) rovers have been pivotal in the program. The two rovers are also called twin rovers because they are designed in the same way, and carry the same payload. The two were also launched in the same year. Spirit was launched on June 10, 2003 followed by Opportunity on July 8, 2003. Spirit landed on January 4, 2004 at Gusev Crater. Twenty one days later, Opportunity landed on Meridiani Planum on the other side of Mars. The two rovers landing on opposite sides of the planet was specially planned to act as a litmus test of the discoveries and the tests. Scientists could compare the findings from the two rovers at the two faces of Mars,  and see for consistencies, or inconsistencies alike. The major tasks of these rovers, like their payload of instruments were the same:

  • Look for signs of water on Mars
  • Looks for chemicals present in the Martian soil that points to past reserves of water
  • To understand the geological processes that shape the terrain of Mars like wind erosion, sedimentation, geothermal activities, and volcanoes.
  • To confirm the findings of Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, and help make a calibration test for the surface findings by the orbiter.

The planned mission of the two rovers was a little over three months, but surpassing both the odds, the two rovers went on to do their job for way more than the expected timeline. Both the rovers are completely solar powered and were expected to work during the Martian summer, and freeze to death during the winter. But they continued well and beyond; Spirit send us around 130,000 pictures while Opportunity has send us around 180,000 pictures till now. Spirit in the year 2009 got stuck in soft sand, but unlike couple previous similar circumstances, it could not get out then, and slowly died of freezing in absence of any charge in its batteries to keep the machinery warm, and said goodbye in 2010. Its sister, Opportunity has been working well for almost 15 years, though with an arthritic robotic arm. This was the case until the June of this year.

Journey of Opportunity

Opportunity has provided us with loads of new information about the red planet which were duly confirmed by the findings of Spirit. Here’s a dive into the past for you:

  • Opportunity discovered the first meteorite on the surface of another planet. On the landing site of its heat shields, it found a rock rich in iron and nickel. This Martian meteorite has been named ‘heat shield rock’. Opportunity discovered a watermelon-sized rock, which NASA called “Block Island,” the largest meteorite found yet on Mars. Opportunity used its panoramic camera to take images of the meteorite, providing scientists with an approximately true-color composite of what it actually encountered on the Red Planet.

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Left to right: Opportunity’s heat shield, with the Heat Shield Rock beside it, and a close-up of the heat shield rock with the robotic arm of Opportunity

  • Opportunity found soil and rocks rich in silicates and carbonates in the Eagle and Endurance craters. A similar finding was confirmed by Spirit on the other side, who found basaltic soil which can only form when volcanic ash mixes with water. These were the first signs of past water on Mars, and of existence of volcanoes.
  • Opportunity discovered small 3mm big spherules (small spheres) of iron which were nicknamed ‘blueberries’ by NASA. These are thought to have formed by sedimentation of minerals present in the ancient water bodies on the surface. Later it discovered smaller spherules of some different composition near Endeavour crater, which due to their mysteriousness have been duped as ‘newberries’.
  • Opportunity found presence of clay in thee soil of the rim of Endurance crater, which can form only when the soil is in contact with flowing water for a very long time. Similar discoveries were made in Marathon valley.
  • Opportunity took the first photo of Earth from the surface of another planet.
  • Opportunity, and spirit took the first photos of any active surface processes on Mars; they captured little tornadoes on Mars. When Spirit’s dead front-right wheel got stuck in sand, it revealed a white layer rich in silica. This pointed to existence of geothermal vents similar to the ones found in the Yellowstone National Park on Earth.

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Left: Newberries, Right: Blueberries

  • Both the rovers found signs of surface activities caused by flowing water bodies on Mars strengthening the evidence of existence of water on Mars in the past. In a way both of them journeyed into the Martian past, understanding the processes that took place on the planet thousands and millions of years ago.

These were just a few of the important contributions of the Mars Exploration Rovers program. We owe a lot to them, but everything has an end. Spirit waved us bye in 2010, and looks like the time to bid farewell to Opportunity is also here.

Weather Report: Dusty for Mars, and Opportunity

In early June this year Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected a buildup of dust near Opportunity which grew quickly in the upcoming days. On June 10, it was realized too late that the Opportunity will be affected by the dusty storm, and so it was sent in hibernation made to save power and sleep the storm off. On June 20, the storm had totally engulfed the planet, and became a global event. This was one of the most powerful martian storms withnessed by us. This wasn’t the first dust storm of Opportunity, and when we tried to connect to it when the storm subsided in September, we expected back a Hello! Alas, so was not the case to be. Despite countless tried no signals were received from the oldest surviving rover on Mars. It appears that due to insufficient charge it hasn’t yet woken up from its hibernation, and due to dust collected on its solar panels it is doubtful whether it will come alive again. While its team is hopeful that strong winds will blow off the dust from the panel and it will start anew, the present consensus at NASA is that the attempts to connect with the rover should be halted. This means that NASA will not try to reconnect with the rover again. Though this does not mean that they will not keep an ear open for the signal that it might send, they plan to continue hearing for the next few months. Though the attempt to reconnect will stop soon in the upcoming days. This is in light of the InSIGHT lander, which is scheduled to land on Mars in less than a week, and all resources need to be reallocated to make sure this new mission is also successful. InSIGHT (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will be studying the interior of Mars and recollect more of its lost past for us to investigate.

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Left: Pictures of Mars from Hubble Space Telescope that show what the planet looked like before and during the dust storm.
Right: A view of the Sun before and during the dust storm captured by Curiosity rover on Mars.

Future Hopes

While Opportunity’s demise will mark the end of a landmark mission, the pursuit of understanding Mars doesn’t end here. Far from that. NASA sent its Curiosity rover on Mars in 2013 under the Mars Science Laboratory program, which is still working on Mars, and has also crossed its expected lifetime. Curiosity has a complete laboratory aboard to study the samples, and uses nuclear power instead of solar power, so no more issues due to dust storms covering up the sunlight. Curiosity has found signs of environment in the past of Mars that could support life, which was its main mission.

In the future we have two more rovers lined up to study Mars and add to the mind-blowing discoveries. Mars 2020 rover will be launched by NASA in 2020, and will take forward the search for microbial life or organic signs of life compounds on Mars, and look for adaptability on Mars for humans. Joint mission by ROSCOSMOS and ESA, EXOMars will also be launched in the next couple years to add to the army of robotic scientists in and around Mars. We still have a lot to learn about are future home, and we are excited!.

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Left to right: InSIGHT lander, EXOMars rover, Mars 2o20 rover

Shantanu Ashima Gaur

Educator

SPACE Technology and Education Private Limited

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