A Lifetime of Opportunity

by Kartik Chaturvedi

February 16, 2019
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Since June 2018, NASA had been pinging the Opportunity Rover on Mars in an attempt to reestablish communication with the robot after a dust storm covered its solar panels with sand. On the 12th of February, NASA announced that Opportunity was officially dead.

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Opportunity in August 2004, taking a portrait using its front hazard-avoidance camera

The rover, launched in 2004, was on a 90-day mission to drive about 1 kilometer and test a few samples of the Martian soil. Instead, it became the solar system’s hardest working robot, serving the mission of science and discovery for more than 15 years without skipping a single day, driving over 45 kilometers! In its lifetime, Opportunity took more than 217,000 images, exposed rock surfaced to reveal their mineral composition, and even found hematite, a mineral that forms in water.

Of course, not everything for the past 15 years was flawless — there were many problems that the rover had to face on the unknown and sometimes unpredictable Martian terrain. A year after landing, Opportunity lost steering in one of its front wheels and got stuck in a sand trap. Luckily, it was able to escape and continue on its path. A heater in its robotic arm limited the power supply, especially at night, so the team began to shut the rover down every Martian evening to avoid discharging the battery completely. In 2015, Opportunity’s 256MB flash memory died, and in 2017, it lost steering in the other front wheel. These failures are understandable for a rover that outlived its expected lifespan by a factor of 60. But finally, in the summer of 2018, a massive dust storm covered Opportunity’s solar panels and blocked out most of the sunlight during the day (pictured below), which completely exhausted the on-board batteries.

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A view of a normal Martian day on the far left, with simulated views showing typical dust storms on Mars, with the one that defeated Opportunity simulated on the far right

(NASA’s latest rover, Curiosity, which landed in 2012, also faced these same dust storms even though it was on the other side of the planet that Opportunity was on. Curiosity, however, was unaffected by the lack of sunlight because it is nuclear-powered)

Normally, mechanical failures or system crashes don’t draw much emotion. But as the news about Opportunity spread, tributes and thoughts poured in from around the world for the little rover, whose absence created a large void that can’t be easily filled.

How did we become so attached to an inanimate metal box, about the size of a washing machine, that was crawling around on the desolate Martian surface?

Since the dawn of human civilization, we have used tools to increase our reach, our perception, and our understanding of our environment. Stone tools allowed us to break open nutshells and fire helped preprocess our food. Just as we use these tools to change our environments, these tools affect us in return. We extend our consciousness, our emotions, and our thoughts to the tool, and the tool becomes a part of us.

Let’s take the example of our personal devices — our laptop, TV, and phone. It’s almost like these screens and devices have become our eyes, able to see all around the world in just a few milliseconds. It is said that you cannot be in two places at the same time, but these technologies allow us to create multiple avatars of ourselves, letting us watch a cricket match in Australia while reading through the day’s Brexit updates from the UK, while making a cup of coffee in an apartment in New York. We are participating in all three events, yet physically we are only in one of them.

And that is where we turn back to Opportunity the rover. Although humans have not travelled to Mars, we sent a little piece of our consciousness with each rover, orbiter, and lander. The things we are observed through the eyes of Opportunity (and Spirit, the first rover to go out of service on Mars). In effect, Opportunity is our avatar on Mars. We sent it 55 million km to the red planet, and as a result we made the journey along with it. So many young scientists grew up hearing news of Opportunity’s latest discoveries, and that is how a distant, 174 kg rover become so human.

Just like Spirit before it, Opportunity sits at rest in its home on the red planet. One day in the future, humans will walk up to it and brush the dust off of their beloved Martian avatar.

Until then, farewell Opportunity, and job well done!

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