The End of a Martian Era

February 8, 2019 0 Comments

A little detour into space news for those of you who look up at the night sky and dream – the Mars Opportunity rover is probably dead.

It is sad news but it also highlights something very remarkable. A device (Opportunity) that was only supposed to last 90 days, ended up exploring the red planet for 5,111 days, nearly 15 years. I wonder if everyone realizes the spectacular nature of this achievement. How many things last 15 years nowadays? None of my appliances in my house. The rover’s longevity is a testament to the people who built the rover and the rocket/spaceship that got it there, the communications platforms that helped it deliver data for all these years, and the management of its travels across the martian landscape. Take a tour through some of Opportunity’s years of raw images here.

One of Opportunity’s first images from Mars

What finally did it in? A martian dust storm. It was one of the biggest martian dust storms ever recorded. The lack of sunshine on the solar panels for too many days in a row probably caused the batteries drain to a level where it could no longer power its internal heaters.

It is an uneventful end, but probably to be expected. The batteries and electrical systems are the most likely to fail in such a remote cold environment. Opportunity’s twin “Spirit” also lost power and quit communicating, but it wasn’t due to a dust storm, per se. It was due to the rover getting stuck in the sand. After it got stuck, it could no longer be positioned to take full advantage of the sun to keep itself sufficiently powered.

One of Opportunity’s last images from Mars

Thinking about it, it is rather amazing how many probes have landed on Mars. It started with the Viking landers back in the 1970s. It continues today with the currently active Curiosity rover and the InSight lander. Just think how much more hardware would be on Mars right now if the success rate was more than 50%. Here is a list of all the various missions to Mars since 1960.

Here are a few past blog posts about the Opportunity rover.

Discoveries in the dirt

Opportunity moving around the planet

Eight years on Mars for Opportunity

Meteorologist Justin Loew

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