A brutal dust storm devoured Mars last summer. The global storm spared the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, but the older, solar-powered opportunity rover was shut down as the thick dust blocked the sun's light. Opportunity has been silent since June 10, 2018, although NASA has already made hundreds of attempts to get in touch with it. When a windy season began on Mars in November, the scientists hoped that gusts could clear the solar panels of deposits, but this hope seems to have been in vain. NASA continues to send recovery commands, but the opportunity mission seems to be over.
At the same time, 2019 marked a historic milestone for the Rover, which was officially on Mars on March 25 on Mars. This far exceeds the originally expected lifetime of the rover of 90 days. Together with the Spirit Rover, which ended in late 2010, marks the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission of one of the most important scientific programs of modern times. It finds evidence that Mars was once covered with liquid and sends iconic images of the surface of the planet.
In honor of Oppy's 15th birthday and knowing that we might never hear from the Rover again, we asked some of the MER mission scientists and elsewhere to share their thoughts and memories about Opportunity, Spirit and their heritage.
Steve Squyres, Chief investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) and a professor at Cornell University:
I have not given up yet. We have a list of things we can try and we will not finish until we've tried everything on it. But we're at the bottom of the list, so it's the right time to think about these things. As far as it feels, it actually feels good … It's an honorable death. [The rovers] are not immortal. You know you will lose her sooner or later. To have a 90-day mission for 15 years and end up as a result of one of the heaviest dust storms that hit Mars in a very long time, we can run away with our heads up. The mission went far beyond what I expected.
The legacy is hard … The legacy is the legacy of both fuel and opportunity, and the spirit and heritage of the team that created it, the team of engineers, scientists, managers, executives and financiers. The reason why it was so successful is because of what they did 15 years ago. There belongs the credit.
As for the scientific heritage, it turned out that Mars was a much more interesting place than I expected. It has changed the way people see Mars. The three landings that preceded ours were all in these shallow, barren plains – on purpose – because they were the safest landing sites. This is all land that we have seen. That made me so excited to do a rover mission. We have these little scenic rovers that have climbed mountains and climbed into craters. Mars has become a truly scenic, interesting place in the sense that you can imagine being there and walking in the footsteps of the Rovers and seeing what they've seen that changes our perspective.
The third part of the heritage is the impact these missions had on children. One of my loveliest dreams, and I know this probably happened, is an eight-year-old who saw television the night we landed in 2004 and thought, "Whoa, I think that's cool, but I can do better "I see evidence that the Mission has done that to some degree, inspiring young people to pursue science, technology and technology careers with their own dreams.
Kirsten Siebach, Planetary Geologist, Rice University:
These rovers were the trailblazers. They had a big influence. Having an opportunity on Mars means we have new pictures from the surface of another planet since my high school. Our understanding of Mars has expanded, and I think it has always been a measure of excitement and interest. It was an inspiration to those working on Mars, students and anyone working in public. It makes Mars accessible and close to … I think the legacy is important to the idea of exploration. It motivates one generation to believe that we are so close to another planet, and that we continue to explore the solar system and the solar system. Learning new things every day …
Everyone talks about the amazing technology that allows us to drive a robot on another planet without mechanics in absurd conditions for 15 years. That's an amazing achievement. But for me and the people in the team, there are all these 15 years. There were people here on Earth from science and engineering teams who met three or five times a week to discuss yesterday's progress and to program carefully what Opportunity would do the next day. This team is more than just a robot, and we'll miss it … It was a lot of fun to work on, we're glad it was so successful. And that dust content was definitely an honorable death if we did not hear about it again.
Kevin Lewis, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University:
I hope Opportunity is back online! I was in the final exam in the MER team in 2003. That's a testament to how long the mission took – 15 years is about three consecutive doctoral degrees! Opportunity did great science until it lost contact and explored new rock units that they would never have been able to achieve with their original design parameters. Both Spirit and Opportunity have completely revolutionized the way we conduct research on Mars, and it is safe to say that we would not be curious without the overwhelming success of the MER mission. Spirit and Opportunity * * figuratively * paved the way for curiosity and future rovers throughout the Solar System through their groundbreaking technical and scientific achievements.
Tanya Harrison, Planetary scientist and research director of Arizona State University's Space Technology and Science Initiative, and researcher at the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity:
The chance far exceeded all expectations we could have of them. She opened the secret of the hematite signal detected by the orbiters in front of her, taught us about both watery and windy conditions on Mars, and drove further than any other rover out of Earth. No matter what the Red Planet seemed to throw at her, she and her clever team of engineers managed to find a way – to this last global dust storm. But it's only fitting that what Oppy could finally defeat was the strongest dust storm we've ever seen on Mars. Now she can rest, knowing that she has made humanity proud as a little robot emissary.
Ashwin VasavadaMars Science Laboratory / Curiosity Rover Project Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
The Opportunity Rover was a real inspiration to me when developing the Curiosity Rover because it showed how a virtual field geologist could compile the history of an ancient environment by studying the records kept in the rocks. Original water gushed across the surface, Playas among dunes, groundwater soaking the rocks, so good stuff … everything stopped me on the hardest days when I brought Curiosity to Mars.
Emily Lakdawalla, Editor-in-chief of the Planetary Society:
Spirit and Opportunity really pioneered a new way of communicating publicly through an active science mission, as Steve Squyres and Jim Bell made the choice to make all the images public when they arrived on Earth. They wanted to make sure that the students could work with the data and that it does not have to be on a password-protected server … Jim and Steve said, "No, we want the public to enjoy the adventure the same way we are. "This decision was so visionary. It created this great international community of people who could follow the everyday dream of exploring another planet through the eyes of Spirit and Opportunity. The people made mosaics and animations, discussed the rocks they saw, and what the science team did. In many cases, people in Europe would see the pictures before the American team woke up. Squyres liked to review these forums because it was easier than dealing with them [the server],
Cassini's team did not intend to share their pictures this way. After NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) saw the Mars Exploration Rover mission, he said, ok, we're going to share Cassini's pictures as well. Many other missions followed in their footsteps – all missions that had landed from Mars, such as Curiosity, Phoenix and InSight. It has influenced the European Space Agency to be more open with its image data – its structure differs from the NASA structure as the institutions build and deliver the cameras – but they were able to release a camera called VMC, which releases images [from Mars] Once they hit Earth, Rosetta quickly shared her NavCam images. Juno and New Horizons have exchanged their data fairly quickly … It has had a profound impact on how missions share their data with the public.
I find it somehow interesting that when Opportunity initially fell silent, many people were ready to write it off immediately. This was perhaps more pragmatic, but it did not take into account the feelings of the people who had kept this spaceship alive for so long. I think it is necessary for the team to use every opportunity to make the mission complete. I certainly do not want to give up some of them … It takes a huge emotional investment to sustain these missions. I think, I hope Opportunity surprises us and comes back. I suspect that probably will not be the case, and I'm sorry for the engineers for their loss. People need to take the time to grieve and realize that it is emotionally difficult.
Abby FraemanOpportunity Rover Deputy Project Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
In the first place I will miss to interact regularly with the team. These people have been working on this mission for a long time, and although people have left and others have come in, there is this wonderful sense of camaraderie. I can recognize everyone by his voice. I know we can rely on people when we encounter challenges or difficult scientific questions. It's really fun to solve all these problems with the people involved. I will also wake up every morning and see what the rover has sent down, what the latest pictures are. Every day you see something that no human has ever seen.
I have a very personal story with the Rover. I was in high school when Spirit and Opportunity landed. There was a program run by the Planetary Society called the Student Astronaut Program, which took students to JPL to be there the night the rover landed. The night Opportune landed, I was there, and it was an amazing experience that inspired me to explore planetary science.
The way Spirit and Opportunity transformed Mars science was quite profound … It gave us a new perspective on the planet that we did not have in 2000. The rovers were sent to follow the water, and we did not do anything before we went there. There is no definitive evidence that there ever was liquid water on Mars in the past. These were the first images of Oppy and later the images of Spirit, which were indisputable proof that Mars had a different climate that could support liquid water on the surface. It opened up a completely new parameter space for questions that we could ask about Martian evolution. These questions were answered by the Curiosity Rover, a larger new rover with more advanced instruments, and some of these are answered by the pattern return missions. Some will need future missions to respond. We did not even know what questions we should ask until we had the results of Spirit and Opportunity.
I'm just thrilled that it lasted as long as it was. It is a celebration of how successful and groundbreaking this mission was.