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Published May 4, 2013

With the frigid temperatures and thin atmosphere on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover received a lengthy spring break vacation in the form of a month-long nap as the Sun became too much of an obstacle between Earth and Mars, preventing communication. As of May 1, Opportunity has resumed its work under the control of its NASA handlers back home. Just don’t agree to sit through the pictures the rover took on its vacation, because you can only handle so many pictures of a rover in a bikini without emotional scarring.

NASA’s twin rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, are one of the few cases where something the government has a hand in has been not just a success but a massive triumph. For more than nine years, since arriving on the Martian surface on January 25, 2004, Opportunity has been rolling around on the surface of Mars and sending back valuable scientific information. That’s astonishing considering the rovers were designed to have an operating lifespan of 90 sol (roughly 92.5 Earth Days). Both rovers vastly outperformed the expectations of their creators at JPL’s Mars Exploration Rover team.

 

Artist's rendering of Opportunity on the surface of Mars.

Though Spirit, the first rover to land on the surface, became stuck and stopped communicating on March 22, 2010, Opportunity has continued its work. It has been battered by dust storms, micro meteorites, and solar radiation for nearly a decade. During that time it has explored some very interesting geologic features of the planet, found extramartian meteorites, and vastly improved our understanding of the rocks and soils of Mars. Not too shabby for a piece of technology that is more than 37 times older than when it should have stopped working. Meanwhile back on Earth, my tablet just died after I owned it for six months. Go figure.

The team at JPL in California doesn’t plan on letting Opportunity rest any longer than necessary. As of May 1, the rover is executing sequences of commands and there is a full schedule for tests including communcations work involving the much newer Curiosity rover that arrived on Mars on November 26, 2011, and a new radio observatory in Australia.

The Little Rovers That Could

Spirit arrived on the Martian surface on January 4, 2004. Its objectives included gathering information on rock and soils that might contain evidence of past liquid water on the surface of Mars, searching for specific mineral types, and to help build a scientific case for a Mars that might have at one point been hospitable. The little rover, which is actually nearly 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) tall, 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) wide, and 1.6 meters (5.2 feet) long arrived through the use of an airbag system that cocooned the rover as it bounced and settled down on the surface. After a successful yet bouncy journey, the rover deployed and began its mission.

The rover headed out across the landing site, named “Columbia Memorial Station” in honor of the astronauts who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, with intent to reach a shallow depression in the Martian surface that would be conducive for planned tests. The rover took atmospheric readings, photographs in varying wavelengths of light, and was able to take rock samples through the use of a grinding tool nicknamed “RAT” (Rock Abrasion Tool).

One of the challenges that both rovers would face during their time on Mars was dust. The loose Martian soil that is kicked up into the air by storms ended up falling onto the horizontal solar panels of the rovers, reducing their ability to absorb energy from sunlight. Thankfully for the rovers and their handlers, winds ended up blowing some of the dust away, which bought them some time to continue their mission.

Over the next few years, Spirit would putter along the surface of Mars, regularly sending back information. On May 1, 2009, however, it rolled into a patch of unexpectedly unstable soil, resulting in the rover becoming stuck. Unable to gain traction, JPL’s team tried multiple ways to rock the rover free but by January 26, 2010, it became clear that the rover was not going to regain its ability to move. In what can only be described as an act of adorable mercy, NASA redefined the rover’s mission by declaring it a “stationary research platform.” By March of that year the rover’s inability to charge sufficiently resulted in a loss of power. The last communication from the rover was on March 22, 2010. NASA announced the end of efforts to reestablish contact and ended Spirit’s mission.

Panoramic composite shot of the Intrepid Crater.

MintFrog
A long-time tabletop and video game fan, MintFrog's antics offer no good explanation for why he hasn't yet been eaten by wolves.

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