15 years, covering 28 miles on Mars, the Mars Rover Opportunity came to the end of its mission this week. Basically it lost contact with Earth last June; NASA had to finally call it Mission Accomplished. The gutsy little Rover was part of a tag team (Opportunity landed on Jan. 24, 2004, Spirit had arrived a few weeks earlier.)
Gutsy doesn’t even start to describe the robot that refused to quit. Here’s how Jet propulsion Lab described it in a few bullet points.
- Set a one-day Mars driving record March 20, 2005, when it traveled 721 feet (220 meters).
- Returned more than 217,000 images, including 15 360-degree color panoramas.
- Exposed the surfaces of 52 rocks to reveal fresh mineral surfaces for analysis and cleared 72 additional targets with a brush to prepare them for inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager.
- Found hematite, a mineral that forms in water, at its landing site.
- Discovered strong indications at Endeavour Crater of the action of ancient water similar to the drinkable water of a pond or lake on Earth.
Opportunity and it’s cohorts explored the theory that Mars could be (or support) a “habitable environment” Its longevity, and ability to literally dust off its problems showed future explorers that this is possible. It’s very landing inspired future landing innovations to distant planets, while its photographing of blueberry-like rocks gave researchers back on Earth an idea of what hematite means to us.
This spunky robot also has a delightful design. For a few years I would borrow a wheel of (a replica of) its sister bot, Spirit, from the Mars lab at ASU, and display it in my class. It definitely inspired me to take robotics more seriously.