March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

One of NASA’s most successful endeavours comes to an end.

The Sun rose, a rover died, and the world wept.


On February 13th, NASA announced that the Mars rover, Opportunity, had completed its mission on Mars, bringing one of NASA’s most successful endeavours to an end and bringing many on the Internet to tears.


This is the story of the rover, the myth, the legend that was Opportunity.


The rover


In the summer of 2003, as part of the Mars Exploration Program, NASA launched two twin rovers from Cape Canaveral, Florida. On January 4th, 2004 the first of these rovers, Mars Exploration Rover-2 (MER-2), more commonly known as Spirit, landed on the Martian surface. Three weeks later, on January 25th, MER-1, also known as Opportunity or “Oppy”, landed on the opposite side of the planet.


Opportunity may have gotten to the Red Planet later than its twin, but it would make up for that in due time.


Among others, the stated objectives for Spirit and Oppy were to analyse rocks and minerals, help determine geological features of Mars, and assess whether the planet had environmental conditions suitable for life. Overall, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the NASA research facility that oversees the Mars Exploration Program, estimated a mission duration of about 92 days.


Both Spirit and Opportunity had another plan in mind.


In total, Spirit’s mission lasted 2,695 days while Opportunity’s lasted a record-breaking 5,352 days, a ludicrous 60 times the planned mission duration. It is true that for JPL exceeding expectations is the norm, not the exception, but even scientists from the laboratory who worked on the mission were impressed by their creations.


“We worked hard, we designed it right, we did the due diligence and the engineering, and those things just lasted forever,” JPL project manager Jennifer Trosper said to National Geographic last month.


Eventually, Spirit’s journey roving across Mars came to an abrupt end in 2009 when the rover became stuck in soft Martian sand. However, for almost an entire year after getting stuck Spirit continued to operate as a stationary scientific instrument sending back what data it could to NASA. Ultimately, the sands of time ran out due to Mars’ literal sand covering the rover’s solar panels and on May 24, 2011 NASA declared Spirit’s mission complete, which is NASA code for a dead rover.


As promised, Opportunity made up for being the second to Mars by continuing to roam the planet for another 7 years after Spirit’s death. However, in June 2018 Mars underwent planet-wide dust storms that shrouded the rover in sand, cutting it off from its stellar energy source and communications were lost. Over the next several months, JPL waited in the hopes that high wind activity might clear off the solar panels and restore power to the rover. Unfortunately, after eight months and over 1,000 signals without any response NASA declared Opportunity’s mission complete.


The myth


In the days, and even hours, following the announcement of Opportunity’s passing the Internet went ablaze with memes, poems, comics, and soliloquies in the rover’s honour. While it was certainly the sending off that Opportunity deserved, there were many homages anchored on false pretences.


One well-intentioned, but ultimately misleading comic that began resurfacing was from the renowned website xkcd. The comic depicts the internal thoughts of a rover as it cruises around the Martian surface. As the end of its planned mission duration arises the rover starts to anticipate its return home to Earth. Unfortunately, the rover ends up getting stuck in the sand, left to wonder why it was not brought home.


For those of you that frequent xkcd or think that the comic sounds familiar, that is because it is the story of Opportunity’s twin rover, Spirit. The comic was created in January 2010 in response to the news of Spirit’s entrapment on Mars but was now being erroneously depicted as the Opportunity rover.


Perhaps the most widespread meme misconception of Opportunity, though, is the rover’s final words.


On February 12th, one day before the official announcement from NASA, Jacob Margolis, a science reporter for a Southern Californian radio station, tweeted that Opportunity’s last message was, “basically, ‘My battery is low and it’s getting dark.’”


The Internet quickly did what it does best, ignored the “basically” caveat and went into a frenzy over the presumed last words of a heroic rover.


In reality, the last message from Opportunity was a standard data package that included atmospheric readings, such as the opacity or clarity of the air. While the rover did report that its power source was almost depleted and that the opacity was at remarkably high levels, Margolis’ reinterpretation was certainly liberal.


Of course, no one can or should fault anyone for poeticising the final words of Opportunity or even for misinterpreting a comic about a rover. However, the reality of Opportunity shows that not only can fact be stranger than fiction, but it can be more interesting too.


The legend


Over the nearly 15 years that Opportunity was operational it has been instrumental in developing a deeper understanding of our neighbouring planet. The rover has sent back over 200,000 images of the Martian landscape, including a selfie last year to celebrate its 5,000th sol (Martian solar day). Furthermore, it has revealed over 50 rocks for mineral analysis and has provided crucial evidence that there was once liquid water on Mars, providing the basis for future JPL missions.


In achieving all of this, Opportunity set the records for longest duration interstellar mission (5,352 days) and furthest off-world distance traveled (45 kilometers). To put this latter statistic into perspective, Spirit traveled just under 8 kilometers on Mars and the only other dead Martian rover, Sojourner, traveled 0.1 kilometers.


While it is true that future rovers, even Curiosity who is currently roaming the Red Planet, might one day claim these records, it will only be done by standing on the shoulders (or panoramic cameras) of Opportunity.


The final resting place for Oppy is in Perseverance Valley, a fitting location for a rover that vastly exceeded its mission duration. Despite coming to an end, the legend of Opportunity will live on in the minds and hearts of the engineers that created them, and in the memes and dreams of people touched by their story.


We live in a weird time, where it is often hard to figure out what goes viral. This is a rare occasion where the motivation is clear. Opportunity was a robot, created by humans, that embodies our inherent drive for exploration. In a day and age where memes can represent public opinion and trends can steer public favour, it is heartening to see the response to Opportunity. And who knows, with enough meme support, maybe we will one day reunite with Oppy on Mars.


Skylar Knight is currently studying for a MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.


Banner image: Mars, NASA