Rolling up to the crater’s edge, the Opportunity rover Shot in a landscape unlike any Earthling had ever seen.
An enormous, meteorite-blasted expanse of volcanic stone and iron oxide extended for 15 miles, ringed by rugged mountains below a dusky orange skies. In months to come, the enterprising robot would discover signs that warm, liquid water had shifted these ancient stones – proof that the conditions for life once existed on Mars.
“That view was one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen,” remembered Ashley Stroupe, the engineer that had been driving the spacecraft the afternoon it came at Endeavour Crater on Mars at August 2011.
And although she was sitting a hundred million miles off, in Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in that instant Stroupe felt just like the astronaut she’d grown up always wanting to be. Opportunity had enabled her, and her fellow scientists, along with her fellow humans, to experience another world.
Opportunity’s historic mission, that detected evidence of Mars’ watery past and altered our understanding of the Red Earth, has eventually come to a conclusion after 15 decades, NASA announced Wednesday.
The cause was system failure precipitated by power loss during a devastating, planetwide dust storm that engulfed the Mars rover last summer.
“It is going to be very sad to say goodbye,” said John Callas, the mission’s project manager. “But at precisely the exact same time, we have got to remember this has been 15 decades of incredible adventure.”
Opportunity’s mission was planned to last only 90 days, but it functioned for 5,000 Martian”sols” (which are approximately 39 minutes longer than an Earth day) and traversed more than 28 treacherous miles – 2 records to NASA.
“It is going to be a very long time,” Callas predicted,”before any other assignment exceeds that length or space on the surface of another world”
Before 2000, when NASA announced its ambitious plan for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, just three spacecraft had successfully operated on the Red Planet. Of these, only one – the tiny Sojourner rover that followed the 1997 Pathfinder mission – moved about on the surface. It never travelled over 100 meters and lasted less than three months.
The images these travellers sent back were cryptic and bleak. Though scientists had speculated about the possibility of finding life on the Red Planet, first investigations revealed that a world with no liquid water, barely any air and a lethal daily dose of radiation.
Now, roughly two-thirds of all missions destined for Mars had failed, often in expensive and awkward ways. In 1999 alone, a unit conversion mix-up along with a missing line of computer signal doomed an orbiter and 2 landers, costing at NASA a combined $200 million (roughly Rs. 1,400 crores).
The agency’s chief scientist, Ed Weiler, called the failures”a call.” For years, NASA had chased a”better, faster, cheaper” exploration strategy, attempting to use a shrinking budget to ship several tiny missions into space. What would this desolate planet possibly teach us that would be worth the cost?
NASA would take a $800 million risk to find out.
Soon after the crashes, Cornell University planetary scientist Steve Squyres got an unexpected telephone call. He’d been trying to convince NASA to send a sophisticated robotic geologist into Mars for at least a decade. The bureau wanted to know – could he have his idea ready to launch by 2003?
And if we needed to be at the top of the rockets in Florida,” Squyres explained. “People say to me,’Oh my goodness, it is a miracle the rover lasted so long on Mars,’ and now I want to go,’it is a miracle that they got to the launchpad.'”
The new plan was to set a package of scientific instruments developed by Squyres and his coworkers atop two rovers called Spirit and Opportunity. The job of building these mobile robotic geologists proven to be herculean. Dimensions changed, parachute tests collapsed, launches were delayed by poor weather and battery glitches.
Squyres remembered a sticky summer night in 2003, after the scrubbing of another launch, when he took a walk on the beach near Cape Canaveral to clear his mind.
On the East, he observed Mars – just a small red dot – increase over the glittering black Atlantic. It was difficult to imagine how the rovers would get there, Squyres said. Mars appeared so forbidding, so alien, so impossibly far away.
Opportunity launched into space aboard a Delta II rocket on July 7, 2003, three weeks after its sibling, Spirit, removed.
“I was in the control room” in JPL, Squyres remembered. He laughed,”Which, interestingly, is a place where we don’t have any control whatsoever.”
The logistics of the MER rover landings were formidable, bordering on absurd. Within half an hour of entering Mars’ thin carbon dioxide atmosphere, the spacecraft had to slow from 12,000 miles to only about 0. Right before impact, a cocoon of air bags inflated round the spacecraft, enabling it to bounce safely onto the surface of the Red Planet.
For a moment, the spacecraft’s radio link was lost as it shuddered to a standstill. And then a sign appeared on the monitor in front of EDL manager Rob Manning. He flung out his arm and leaned back in his chair.
Planetary scientist Abigail Fraeman, then 16, was invited to JPL within a Planetary Society application for high school pupils. She can still summon every detail of that night. The tones which rang out as each system was discovered healthy. The pictures that Opportunity sent down from the landing site of a smooth dark plain so vivid and sharp she felt she could reach out and touch it. The explosion of elation that swept throughout the science team as investigators realized what they had landed : layers of exposed bedrock that would reveal clues about Mars’ geologic history extending back centuries.
“I realized that I wanted to be among those people who may jump up and down,” Fraeman explained. “I needed to be someone who could understand the importance of what those images were telling us”
Fraeman wound up going to school for math and geology, then making her PhD in planetary geoscience.
Opportunity’s first great achievement came within two weeks of its arrival on the Red Planet. The layered outcrop on which the rover had landed – the one that made the scientists surrounding Fraeman jump for joy – featured evidence that water once flowed through the rocks: crystals, sulfur compounds, small spherical items that scientists dared to blueberries, and stone patterns that looked like sediments laid down with a flowing current.
This proof constituted a”giant leap” toward discovering whether Mars ever hosted existence, Weiler told The Post.
That discovery was bolstered by scores more like it. Opportunity went to locate hematite, an iron mineral usually associated with water, and a strand of gypsum, which likely shaped from mineral-rich water moving through stone.
“It really changed the way scientists perceive Mars,” said Squyres, who has been chief investigator for the instruments aboard Spirit and Opportunity since the start of their assignment. “It is a cold and desolate world today, however in the distant past, in the time that the stones explored by Spirit and Opportunity were formed, it was a really different universe. It was a world that was Earthlike, a time when life has been appearing on Earth.”
“So it enables you to seriously think about,” he continued,”if it happened on Earth, which it did, could it have happened under the warmer, wetter conditions that once existed on Mars?”
Opportunity, he said,”couldn’t answer that question. But we helped frame it.”
Those discoveries helped build the case for following missions to Mars, for example, Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012 and is still exploring the Red Planet, and a 2020 mission which will collect rock samples for eventual return to Earth.
Opportunity’s scientific accomplishments were only possible because it had been such an engineering success, ” said NASA’s acting manager of planetary science Lori Glaze. The rover was adaptable, tenacious and diligent, and its drivers never failed to receive it to its aims.
“Being in a position to really roll up to an outcrop and analyze it, to appear alongside your hand lens, do the chemistry measurements… it permits you to really feel like you’re there,” she said. “That totally changed the way we go about doing planetary exploration.”
The MER mission’s cultural heritage is just as wide-reaching. A Twitter account shared selfies and snarky comments in the spacecraft’s voice.
When Opportunity went silent last summer, over 10,000 fans delivered the spacecraft electronic”postcards” wanting it well.
“Wake up little buddy!” One read. “We miss you!”
The scientists who operated the spacecraft could not help but anthropomorphize them. Stroupe, the JPL Chairman, jokes that Spirit and Opportunity had”the dynamic of being rival siblings.” Spirit, which landed on Mars first, confronted tougher terrain and suffered several breakdowns, culminating in the rover’s eventual loss of contact in 2010.
Since the”younger child,” Stroupe said,”what kind of came easy to Oppy.” The engineer laughed. “I mean, she discovered signs of water until we drove the lander!”
The charmed rover barely escaped becoming trapped in a sand dune at 2005, lived a global dust storm in 2007, also undertook the longest-ever traverse performed by means of a rover – the three-year journey from the landing site at Victoria Crater into Endeavour Crater, 13 miles away.
She predicts for Spirit and Opportunity”the initial Martians” – the first things to reside and work longer on a different planet than they did on Earth.
And as a procedures and systems engineer for NASA’s Mars missions, accountable for driving robots round unforgiving alien terrain,”I do feel a bit like I’ve naturalized double citizenship,” Stroupe added.
A sticker in her office acknowledges,”My other vehicle is on Mars.” She utilizes a program on her telephone to monitor the 24-hour, 39-minute Martian day. When she shuts her eyes to sleep, rusty landscapes and dust-filled heavens are the background to her dreams.
In May 2018, scientists at JPL obtained a stressing weather report from NASA’s Martian satellites: A large dust storm was brewing only a couple of hundred kilometers away from Opportunity, blocking out the solar-powered rover’s view of sunlight.
The spacecraft had survived such storms earlier. However, at more than 14 years old, it was no longer as robust since it had once been. A mistake in one of Opportunity’s memory banks led to loss of long-term memory. Issues with the rover’s wheels and robotic arm looked like spacecraft arthritis. If Opportunity experienced another prolonged power reduction, it may not recover so easily.
From June, the dust storm had grown into a planet-encircling occasion, among the most ferocious NASA had ever seen. It looked likely that Opportunity would undergo a low-power fault, putting itself to sleep before the skies cleared. Efforts to make contact with the spacecraft went undercover.
After the storm finally started to subside, in September, NASA adopted a”sweep and beep” plan for waking the rover, sending commands multiple times every day. Except for a couple of false alarms from other spacecraft – NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter transmits to a similar frequency – scientists discovered nothing back.
If the storm had deposited dust on Opportunity’s solar panels, then the forthcoming windy season – that runs from November to January – might help sweep them clean.
“The toughest part was the not knowing,” Stroupe said. “It takes a real tollfree”
The robot’s 15th birthday, on Jan. 24, passed without so much as a ping in the Red Planet.
After sending more than 835 recovery commands to the spacecraft, for example a last-ditch app that would completely reboot Opportunity’s clock, expect began to dwindle. Every day that passed, Callas said, it became less likely that NASA would get a reaction to its frantic calls.
The very last signal was sent out of JPL on Tuesday night. It had been met with only silence.
“We have exhausted all the good ideas [for stirring the rover]… and now we announce the assignment as being complete.”
A meeting with all the mission’s scientists and engineers this week felt like a funeral, Zurbuchen said. Researchers cried not just for the death of their rover, but because of its disintegration of a 15-year-old team.
Still, Squyres was resolute as the mission brought to a closefriend.
“I always knew it was going to end,” he explained. “And boy, if this is the ending… getting killed by one of the most ferocious storms we’ve ever seen. Well, you can walk away from that along with your head held high.”
The rover is lived at Mars by Curiosity, the InSight lander and six orbiting spacecraft. NASA’s next rover mission, which will seek out signs of early life, will start in 2020.
As for Opportunity, its alloy casing will stay in the place at which it sent its last message, on the rim of Endeavour Crater. “It is going to be there,” Zurbuchen stated,”like a monument, or a shipwreck.”
It’s a marker of where humankind has been.