Opportunity is the little rover that can. The rover’s odyssey on the red planet began on January 24, 2004. Airbag cushions helped bring the rover to a stop inside the Eagle Crater.
Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, were tasked with looking for past signs of water near their landing sites.
For three months, Opportunity combed over rocks in Eagle Crater trying to learn everything it could during its planned mission phase. In that short time, the rover found evidence that ancient Mars was much wetter than it is today.
The rover pair’s missions were designed to explore Mars for three months. Both of them far exceeded anyone’s expectations. Spirit lasted until 2010 when it stopped communicating with Earth. In 2011, NASA officials declared the robot dead. While Spirit is gone, Opportunity keeps trudging along.
But it hasn’t all been problem-free for Opportunity. Last year, the rover suffered memory problems described as “amnesia events.” Data was still able to be sent back to Earth using volatile memory. Opportunity just has to send it to Earth before powering down every night.
“Opportunity can continue to accomplish science goals in this mode,” said Opportunity Project Manager John Callas last summer. “Each day we transmit data that we collect that day.”
Callas likened flash memory to a refrigerator. “Without it, you couldn’t save any leftovers. Any food you prepare that day you would have to either eat or throw out. Without using flash memory, Opportunity needs to send home the high-priority data the same day it collects it, and lose any lower-priority data that can’t fit into the transmission.”
The rover’s other systems are running smoothly. Opportunity even got an assist from the environment. Martian winds helped remove dust from Opportunity’s solar panels over the past month.
“Opportunity has stayed very active this winter, in part because the solar arrays have been much cleaner than in the past few winters,” said Callas.
Today, the solar panels are generating more than 460 watt-hours per day – a 40% increase from earlier in the Martian winter. That’s even more than the solar panels were generating during Opportunity’s first winter on Mars. Back then, the solar panels were producing less than 300 watt-hours per day. For about four months, Opportunity was little more than a paper weight on the desolate surface.
What is Opportunity doing now?
Opportunity has been exploring the Endeavour crater since 2011 and continues to do so. Scientists are pointing the rover at rocks on the southern side of ‘Marathon Valley.’ This feature cuts through Endeavour’s rim from west to east.
According to data gathered by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the area is believed to have clusters of clay minerals. Perfect targets for looking for wet conditions from Mars’ ancient past.
Recently, Opportunity used its rock abrasion tool to remove the surface crust from a rock dubbed “Private John Potts.” Are you wondering where that name came from? The rover team is using names of members from the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s Corps of Discovery as informal names for rocks in Marathon Valley.
Team members are optimistic about the rover’s future. “With healthy power levels, we are looking forward to completing the work in Marathon Valley this year and continuing onward with Opportunity,” Callas said.
How scientists keep Opportunity going?
Marathon Valley isn’t just a good science target. The team specifically placed the rover on the valley’s south side. This keeps the solar panels tilted toward the sun as it moves across the northern sky. Scientists also keep a lookout for any areas with a breeze to help keep the solar panels clear of dust.
Did You Know: Opportunity holds the longest distance traveled by a robot on the surface of another world at 26.5 miles. That’s more than a marathon!
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