Opportunity Knocks

Opportunity’s View January 24, 2012 (NASA)

On January 25, 2004, a robotic rover called Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars, our closest neighbor planet. Opportunity’s life story is a good model for thinking about our own human goals. It took more than five months and more than 34 million miles to get there, but that day marked the beginning of the rover’s real work. The next 21-plus miles has been the exciting part of the journey for scientists. The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover was designed to last 90 Martian days, which are just over 39 minutes longer than Earth days.

By its second day on Mars, Opportunity had a joint problem with a robotic arm that is supposed to be stowed when it moves. But the rover—and NASA—made do and eventually developed a way to move safely without stowing the arm. For months in 2005, Opportunity was stuck in the sand. Again, the rover—and NASA—patiently inched around and eventually started roving again.

NASA Watches Opportunity Land

All this time, Opportunity has been collecting soil samples, monitoring the climate, and sending back amazing photographs of the Martian landscape. The rover is basically a moving science mini-laboratory. It x-rays and performs microscopic imaging of rock and soil samples, then sends analyses of constituent elements back to Earth. Its Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer examines rocks and soil to figure out how they were formed. Scientists are especially interested to know whether and when water may have existed on Mars. In December, NASA announced that Opportunity had examined what seemed to be gypsum deposited in veins by water.

As of this month, seven years after its landing, Opportunity sits on the north end of Cape York, which is on the rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover is still looking around and conducting measurements, including Doppler tracking. The robotic arm is still working; it positioned the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer on January 12.

Opportunity’s Path as of December 2011

Opportunity’s twin, called Spirit, landed three weeks before Opportunity on January 4, 2004. Before the end of the month, Spirit faced a flash memory problem. NASA spent ten days reformatting, patching, and testing in order to fix the problem. Luckily, the fix worked and was applied to Opportunity as well. Even after Spirit got stuck in 2009, the rover continued to send back information. NASA’s final contact with Spirit was on March 10, 2010, more than six years after its landing. A little bit of failure goes a long way to success.

Curiosity launched on November 26, 2011. It is currently cruising (it’s in the cruise phase of the mission) and will arrive on Mars after 193 more days, in August. This rover is much bigger than its twin predecessors and will check out the Red Planet in ways that will help us plan a mission to put human beings on the surface of Mars. Of course, Curiosity will live up to its name by studying the planet’s geological evolution, radiation levels, and chemical makeup.

Rock Abrasion Tool (at the end of the robotic arm)

Few people are as enthusiastic about the Mars rovers as Ken Kremer. He does a lot of work processing the images that Mars rovers send back. Read his Lofty Ambitions guest post HERE. See his work at Universe Today HERE and HERE.

To read Anna’s very different take on the Mars rovers and how they can inspire a writing life, read her guest post “Curiouser and Curiouser” at Chandra Hoffman’s blog HERE.

As we celebrate today’s anniversary of Opportunity’s landing, consider the meaning of that word. John F. Kennedy once pointed out that the Chinese ideogram for the word crisis is composed of two characters, one meaning danger but the other meaning opportunity. We’re not sure we should learn Chinese from Kennedy, but the notion points to the relationship between failure and success about which we’ve written before here at Lofty Ambitions. What is the set of circumstances or conditions that will make it possible to accomplish something? How will we create our next opportunity, perhaps inch our way out of a metaphorical sand dune or take care of that all too real bum shoulder joint? Sometimes, it takes 34 million miles to get where you need to be, only to find out that the fun is in the next 21 miles of meandering. Is there an opportunity knocking—or knocking you over?

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