DISCOVERY & DESIGN
IN THE LAB
Earlier this year NASA declared an official end to its Opportunity rover mission—after the craft spent nearly 15 years exploring the surface of Mars. A severe dust storm on the Red Planet blanketed Opportunity’s location in June 2018—NASA received its final communication from the solar powered
rover on June 10, 2018, and nothing since.
NASA made over a thousand attempts to restore contact with the rover since then,
but to no avail. A final attempt to revive the golf cart-sized vehicle was made on
February 12 by engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California—
they sent a transmission of Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” as a “wakeup call”
to Opportunity, knowing full well that the rover would not respond. Which, of
course, it did not.
Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission
Directorate, spoke to a grim audience (both in person and streaming live on the
Web) the following day, where he told them “with a sense of deep appreciation and
gratitude … I declare the Opportunity mission as complete.”
NASA engineers hugged and cried at the loss of their “friend.” Internet users
memorialized the rover in cartoons, memes, podcasts, songs and with the hashtag
#ThanksOppy. Politicians, celebrities and regular people praised the ingenuity of the
mission and its support staff.
The kicker—the Opportunity mission was only supposed to last 90 days and travel
a little over a thousand yards. Instead it persevered for over 14 years and covered a
marathon’s worth of ground.
Opportunity was part of the Mars Exploration Rovers mission, which was sent
to Mars to explore the history of water on the planet. Opportunity, along with its
twin, Spirit (whose mission was declared complete in March 2010), reached Mars
in January 2004. It trekked over 28 miles across Mars and returned over 217,000
images of the planet back to Earth.
Opportunity greatly outlasted its projected lifespan because of the dedication
and skill of its support team of engineers, rover drivers and scientists. The Martian
terrain obviously isn’t smooth or easy to navigate, and so NASA worked hard
to ensure that the rover could get to its intended destinations by plotting courses
over and around rocks, boulders, craters and even slopes as steep as 32 degrees.
When one of the front wheels started drawing more current than the other wheels,
engineers piloted it backward in order to extend the life of the front wheel. When
the rover got stuck in a soft sand ripple on Mars for several weeks in 2005, the
JPL ran extensive tests in a sandbox-like simulation in order to figure out how to
successfully get it out of the Martian pit.
Appropriately, Opportunity’s last journey brought it to its
final resting place in an area known as Perseverance Valley—a
wonderful testament to the hardworking people who carefully,
skillfully, and perhaps even lovingly, crafted a superior piece of
equipment they knew they would never see again.
MaryBeth DiDonna, Editor
Quality Equipment Can Have a
April 2019 Vol. 55, No. 6
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