The Land of Opportunity

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.” –Henry David Thoreau

Maybe for you, Henry. But a century and a half later, we are explorers of many other lands, including this one.

Back in 2004, two rovers landed on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity. And while Spirit has gotten all the press with its trials and tribulations, Opportunity has quietly been, well, exceeding all reasonable expectations.

Opportunity landed in January of 2004, slated to run for 90 days. Its landing site was in Eagle Crater, shown below.

Rovers on Mars pose a unique challenge for their controllers. Even using radio-control, it takes Opportunity somewhere around 20 minutes to respond to a command! Why’s this? Radio waves — a form of light — travel incredibly fast: at the speed of light, or about 300,000 kilometers per second. Which means they can reach the Moon in just over a second.

But Mars is waaaay farther away than the Moon is from us. Mars varies between about 70 and 370 million kilometers away from Earth, meaning that it could take over 20 minutes for Opportunity to receive a signal such as, “Stop! Or you’ll fall into that crater!” So Opportunity has a great robot brain, allowing it to make its own decisions when faced with a huge variety of situations.

But it also relies on commands to tell it where to go. Originally designed for three months and a 600 meter journey, Opportunity has now been up and running for over six years, and has traveled over 20 kilometers! What are some of the highlights?

Endurance crater. Opportunity, despite worries that it would never get out, drove straight into Endurance crater, exploring the different layers of sediment,

found hematite spheres, evidence of past water on Mars and possibly of past life as well,

and then got itself out of the crater, and kept going!

The next year, 2005, Opportunity went and found its original heat shield, and know what it found next to it?

The first meteorite ever discovered on another planet! Known by the “creative” name Heat Shield Rock, this is confirmed to be an iron meteorite!

Opportunity has overcome a host of problems, ranging from escaping from a sand dune (it dug itself out) to shoulder problems (it now permanently has its arm deployed and seems to be working fine) to accumulating too much dust on its solar panels (it was helped by a simple gust of wind). And it’s gone on to visit a whole host of craters, including Erebus crater,

Vostok crater,

and — perhaps most famously — Victoria crater, below.

And it might just be me, but one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen is the rover looking back at its own footprints in the Martian soil.

It might look like it’s already come a long way, and it definitely has.

But that’s nothing compared to what lies ahead. With over 20 km under its belt, Opportunity is undertaking its most ambitious journey ever: a 12 km journey to the gigantic crater Endeavour, estimated to take two more years.

Notice how huge Endeavour is compared to Victoria (with the tiny yellow text in the image above). Endeavour, if Opportunity gets there, will be by far the largest crater ever visited by a rover. And I think it’s going to get there; maybe as early as late 2011!

So the next time you hear someone talk about the Land of Opportunity, remember my favorite rover, hundreds of millions of miles away on Mars, already scoping out the next frontier!