Friday, February 15, 2019

NASA: 'Opportunity' Rover Dead

NASA has just made a long-expected declaration: its long-lived Opportunity rover is dead. This comes following months of trying and failing to contact the rover, which went silent following a planet-sized dust storm that erupted in June, 2018. With the end of the mission, this truly marks the end of an era in Martian exploration.

Launched way back on July 7, 2003 and landing on January 25, 2004, NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit was the other) were the second generation of Mars rover and were designed to have a mission life of 90 days. While this does not seem long, 90 days is a lot longer than the 7 days of design life expected for the first Martian rover, Sojourner (1997).

Launched for the Red Planet in 2003, a time which coincided with the closest Earth-Mars approach in thousands of years, Opportunity, along with its twin rover, Spirit, started their journey through space in the hopes of fulfilling a planetary scientist's dream of a large, long-lived, roving vehicle that was to serve as a mobile science platform. In the mission statement, Opportunity and Spirit were given a 90 day life estimate during which they would try to confirm the existence of water on Mars.
That was at the rovers' arrival in January, 2004.

Their initial mission to look for signs of water on Mars completed within the 90 day time frame, both rovers were still going strong. So, officially living on borrowed time, NASA scientists decided to try and get as much out of the rovers as possible before they too went the way of
Pathfinder/SojournerViking, and all the other Mars missions.

Needless to say, the rovers did not disappoint.

The mission started running into trouble in 2009, which is when Spirit got stuck. All attempts to free the rover failed and the mission was altered to be one of a stationary science platform. Unfortunately for Spirit, it was poorly positioned to harness solar energy in order to recharge its batteries during the coming Martian winter. The last communication with Spirit came on March 22, 2010 and the mission was declared over the following year.

While its twin was going through its final days, Opportunity kept right on going, redefining our collective knowledge of the Red Planet as it went.

Speaking on Opportunity's unimaginable longevity at the mission's 10th anniversary, John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said that “these are magnificently designed machines . . . we really have greatly expanded the exploration envelope by having a vehicle that can not only last so long but stay in very good health over that time, such that we can continue exploring."

All told, Opportunity would travel over 28 miles non Mars, breaking the interplanetary vehicular travel distance long-held by the Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 (1973). Through all of this, aside from some software memory issues (which NASA was able to bypass), the rover remained in remarkably good 'health.'

Then came the dust storm of 2018.

In the beginning of June, a local dust storm began, which in and of itself was not a cause for worry. However, within a few days, the storm picked up intensity and eventually enveloped the entire planet. Opportunity was a solar powered rover and depended on the sunlight to recharge its batteries on a daily basis. With the dust storm persisting, the rover began to lose its ability to harness sunlight. The last transmission from the rover came on June 10, at which point it entered hibernation mode.

NASA made its first attempts to contact the rover in October, after the storm subsided. There was no reply and fear was mounting that the rover had either suffered a catastrophic failure or that its solar panels were buried under a think blanket of dust. A last ray of hope was the tendency for the Martian winds to pick up around the end of 2018 and into 2019. These seasonal windy periods had cleaned the rover's solar panels in years past but, come this trip around the Sun, they never materialized.

With hopes fading, NASA made one last attempt to contact the rover on February 12, 2019. When no reply came, NASA beamed its last transmission to the rover: the classic Billie Holiday song “I'll be Seeing You.”

The mission was declared over the following day.

Remember when . . .

Now, as space enthusiasts remember the rover, it's still hard to comprehend that the mission lasted for 15 years. For a trip down memory lane, consider the following . . .

The majority of today's high school freshman class was born in 2004

At the start of 2004, Facebook. Gmail, Skype, Yelp and Firefox didn't exist

SpaceShipOne becomes the world's first private spacecraft

A 42” plasma TV costs $4,000

The majority of digital cameras are 3MP in resolution

The world's first 1MP camera phone debuts

HDTV, DVR, satellite radio and Bluetooth are in their infancy

'Blogging' named new word of the year

iPods are all the rage

Drones are first used in the military

PC maker Gateway closes all its retail stores and IBM sells out to Lenovo

Electronic voting machines make their first appearance in the United States

The hacking group Anonymous is formed