The Lifetime of an Opportunity

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
Henry Ford

Back in 2003, a twin pair of rovers — Spirit and Opportunity — were launched from Earth to Mars. For no good reason at all, Opportunity has long been my favorite of the two.

Image Credit: NASA / JPL, as are all the Opportunity rover pictures.

Opportunity landed in January of 2004 in Eagle Crater, a relatively small crater on the surface of Mars. Originally slated for a 90-day mission, Opportunity has been going strong for nearly seven years now!

Over that time, it’s made some amazing discoveries, including the following:

Discovering — up close — what look like dried-up tracks from flowing water at Burns Cliff.

Discovering “martian blueberries,” or hematite spheres about half the size of your little finger’s nail. These are particularly interesting, because these litter nearly the entire path of Opportunity along the Meridiani Planum, and are formed on Earth in hot springs and pools of standing water.

Discovering “heat shield rock,” the first meteorite ever found on another planet!

And, of course, there were many others. By time more than two-and-a-half years had gone by, Opportunity had taken a remarkable journey across the martian plains, passing all these sights and then some, making it all the way to Victoria Crater.

The rover spent nearly two years exploring the crater’s rim and interior, creating a topographic map of the interior and studying the layering along the crater walls.

(Go ahead and click on the image below for an amazing panorama of Victoria crater taken by Opportunity!)

After nearly five years and 20 kilometers (a record!) traveled, Opportunity was told to travel across the plains, once again, to Endeavor crater, which would mark the largest crater ever visited by a rover.

Below, compare Endeavor to Victoria — just above center — to get a sense of scale.

By this time, though, Opportunity’s time on Mars had taken its toll. Its solar panels — the source of its power — had been obscured my martian dust. In fact, by April of 2009, Opportunity was only receiving 50% of the power it had been receiving in January of 2004, thanks to the huge amount of (easily visible) dust clogging its panels.

With an additional 12 kilometers to travel to Endeavor crater, Opportunity would need a lot of luck to get there.

And then it happened. A huge gust of wind came along, knocking a large amount of dust off and giving Opportunity a 40% power boost.

And while I optimistically predicted that Opportunity could now make it to Endeavor by the end of 2011, the rover itself had other plans.

It’s there now. Just a few days ago, Opportunity — the one surviving twin — arrived at the rim of Endeavor crater.

And what you’re about to see are its very first photographs of the largest crater on another world to be visited by a man-made rover.

(All subsequent images credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU, annotations courtesy of Ken Kremer. As always, click for a hi-res version.)

The astute among you who click on this final image to get the hi-res version will notice a graininess on the ground. Those are still martian blueberries, or hematite spheres, suggesting this entire journey that Opportunity’s taken has been along ground that was once underwater!

And now that it’s at the crater’s rim, the next step is going to be to explore this 22-kilometer-wide behemoth. It arrived at the crater rim just yesterday, at the outcrops named “Spirit Point” after its deceased twin.

Inside the crater will be the oldest geological layers ever accessed on Mars by any scientific instrument. Opportunity has officially run for nearly 30 times its expected mission duration, and it’s still going strong. I know everyone with a sense of curiosity is with me right now, thinking that you can’t wait to see what Opportunity finds next!