Tag Archives: Opportunity

The air is clearing over Perseverance Valley – but what of Opportunity?

MER-B “Opportunity”, the little rover that could, obliterating all expectations for its longevity and roving for nearly 15 years on the surface of Mars….

The rover went silent back in June as one of Mars’ notorious planetwide dust storms kicked up.  Not all of the planet was equally affected, but the spot where Opportunity is trucking around, nicknamed Perseverance Valley for how damn tough this bot has proven to be, was severely affected.  It would be nearly as dark as night even in the middle of the day during the worst of the storm.  Even a nuclear-powered rover like Curiosity would struggle to be useful in those conditions (it was, ironically, much less dusty in Gale Crater), but for a solar-powered rover, such darkness is disastrous.  Opportunity likely completely depleted its batteries.  The good news is that it’s summer in Perseverance Valley, and the dust storm acted like a thermal blanket; the rover should have stayed warm enough that its batteries will not have frozen, as likely killed the Spirit rover when it got stuck in a position where it could not receive adequate sunlight over the long winter.  The bad news is . . . the rover’s been showing serious signs of age already, and it could be partially buried under dust now.  It’s hard to say what condition it’s in.

Still, the storm has been abating.  Soon, the tau (a measure of particulates in the atmosphere) is expected to drop below 1.5, at which point there should be enough light to charge the batteries up.  It is designed to recover from a complete power loss, and once it has sufficient power in its batteries, it should be able to phone home.  And to improve the odds some more, NASA is also sending regular “are you there?” signals to it, while listening for any signals via both the Deep Space Network and the orbiting assets such as Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and ESA’s Mars Express, all of which are designed to act as relays for any compatible lander on the surface of Mars.

But NASA cannot afford to listen forever.  Once the tau drops below 1.5, a clock will start to tick.  They will continue actively pinging the rover for 45 days.  After that, a passive listening campaign will continue for another 90 days, in hopes that the upcoming dust devil season may clean off any accumulated dust on the solar panels.  But if Opportunity does not respond by the end of that campaign, they may have to finally close the door on this astonishingly successful mission.

So cross your fingers that Oppy calls home!  😉



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Opportunity — can you hear us?

The Mars Exploration Rover B “Opportunity” has been such an amazing success story.  From a remarkable “hole-in-one” landing in January of 2004….

…to record-shattering traverses of Meridiani Planum for over 14 years, currently taking it to a location aptly named Perseverance Valley, Opportunity has far outlived all of the expectations for it.  It has outlived its sister vehicle, Spirit, which became mired and unable to orient its solar panels for optimal illumination in the long Martian winter, and seen remarkably fortuitous weather events — dust devils that cleared the pernicious accumulation of dust from its solar panels.

But now, the rover’s been going on so long it almost seems unstoppable.  XKCD’s Randall Munroe took this its logical extreme:

We all remember those famous first words spoken by an astronaut on the surface of Mars: It really has seemed as if Opportunity is unstoppable.

The Martian Terminator of rovers, if you will.

But it’s possible it’s now met its match in the form of what is shaping up to be the biggest dust storm on Mars in a long time, possibly since the staggering dust storm that enveloped Mars just before Mariner 9 arrived in 1971, lasting months before the probe was able to begin usefully photographing the red planet.  If this storm also lasts months, it will surely kill Opportunity; it’s summer in Meridiani Planum, which helps a lot, but this storm is likely blotting out the sun almost completely.  A few days ago, NASA lost the signal from Opportunity.  Over the previous few days, the probe’s telemetry had reported plummeting power output from the solar panels, so at present, it is certainly subsisting on battery power, running only its mission clock so it can periodically wake up and check to see if there is light again.  If the storm lifts soon, we may hear from Opportunity again.  But if not . . . .

Well.  Cross your fingers.  😉  This plucky little robot has surprised us before.

PS If you’re wondering about Curiosity, well, that probe is on the other side of the planet, in Gale Crater.  But the storm is so massive that Curiosity is beginning to see the effects as well.  Unlike Opportunity, though, Curiosity runs off of a Pu-238 radioisotope thermoelectric generator; it can run just as well in the dark as in daylight.  (Well, except for the fact that it doesn’t have headlights so can’t see where it’s going.)  Curiosity may eventually find its science operations impeded by the weather, but at least it won’t have to worry about power for a good long while.

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5,000 Martian Sunrises

Mars Exploration Rover B “Opportunity” has blown away all predictions for longevity.  I mean, NASA/JPL/APL always design their spacecraft to last as long as possible within budget constraints, but even by their own high standards, this thing has lasted a long, long time.  And just a few days ago, it saw something nobody thought it ever would — it’s 5,000th Martian sunrise.

And it finally took its first selfie.  😉  Well, not exactly the first, since it has taken pictures from its mast before.  But this was the first selfie taken using Opportunity’s robot art, similarly to how Curiosity regularly takes selfies.  Opportunity’s arm doesn’t have as good of a camera; it’s really meant for up-close microscopic images.  But it was a nice way of commemorating Sol 5,000:

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20 Years at Mars!

One more post today, because this is an important one.  😉  Yesterday was Independence Day here in America, and for space geeks, it was important for another reason — it was the twentieth anniversary of the Pathfinder landing on Mars, and marked twenty years of continuous exploration of the Red Planet.

It’s amazing to think about.  I remember exactly where I was on July 4, 1997.  I was at an Independence Day party at my uncle’s house, and he had a TV on for the nerdier among us to watch and see when Pathfinder landed.  It was very exciting.  Pathfinder was the first lander to operate on Mars since November of 1982, when Viking 1 lost contact with Earth, a very long gap.

Mars had developed a powerful reputation as the Bermuda Triangle of the Solar System.  Before Viking, there had been 21 attempted missions to Mars, but only six had been successful.  After Viking, there were no further attempts until 1988, when the Soviet Union sent the ill-fated Phobos missions, both of which failed.  In 1992, NASA made another attempt with Mars Observer, which is believed to have exploded just before orbital insertion due to a fault in its propulsion system.  It seemed like Mars was off limits.  The next Mars transfer window came and went.

In 1996, another Mars window opened, and this time both NASA and the Russian Federation’s Rosaviacosmos were prepared to send spacecraft.  It would be one of the last ambitious deep space efforts by Roscosmos for some time.  Rosaviacosmos sent Mars 96, a highly ambitious spacecraft built collaboratively with European nations and carrying an orbiter, landers, and ground penetrators.  It failed to leave Earth orbit, and eventually reentered Earth’s atmosphere.  (The same fate would later befall Fobos-Grunt.)    NASA sent Mars Pathfinder, its hitchhiking Sojourner rover, and Mars Global Surveyor.

On July 4, 1997, Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars with an innovative tetrahedral lander studded with airbags, which allowed it to hit the surface in any configuration and still end up upright at the end.  Although Pathfinder had a brief scare due to an undetected race condition in its computer software, it was recovered and went on to a very full mission, deploying the breadbox-sized Sojourner rover to become the first wheels on Mars.  Pathfinder continued operating until October 7, 1997, beating its design specs by about two and a half months.

But before it failed, another spacecraft arrived: Mars Global Surveyor, the first fully successful Mars orbiter since the Viking Orbiters in the 1970s.  Mars Global Surveyor set a record (since beaten) for total operating time at Mars, lasting nearly a decade (well past its one-year primary mission), going on to conduct joint observations with later spacecraft and serving as the first Mars communications relay station, transmitting data from landers back to Earth.

After Pathfinder and MGS arrived, many more followed, although Mars continued to earn its reputation as the Eater of Space Probes.  The 1998 launch window was fraught with failures, from the Japanese Nozomi probe (ran out of propellant prematurely due to a fault), to NASA’s Mars Climate Observer (killed by an unknown unit conversion error resulting in deorbit rather than orbit capture), to Mars Polar Lander (lost due to premature shutdown of the landing engine) and its piggybacked Deep Space 2 penetrator (MPL crashed before it could be deployed).  But the 2001 window showed a reversal of fortunes.  MGS, the lone operational spacecraft at Mars, would be joined by NASA’s Mars Odyssey 2001, which remains in operation today.  In 2003, MGS and Odyssey would be joined by ESA’s Mars Express, which continues to operate today, although Mars Express’s piggybacked Beagle 2 lander (provided by the United Kingdom) never called home.  Orbital photography eventually revealed that it had landed in a very unfortunate posture among a boulder field, and was likely unable to open itself properly — this is a risk for any robotic lander, and one that is nearly impossible to prevent.    But also in 2003 launched two of the most phenomenal overachievers in the history of Mars exploration: NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.  Both operated far past their original three-month mission.  Spirit was eventually killed when it became mired in a posture which did not give its solar powers enough light during the long Martian winter, but Opportunity remains in operation today, having set both endurance and mileage records.

The 2005 launch window saw the most powerful camera ever sent to Mars, aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  This spacecraft has enabled exquisitely detailed imagery over time, tracking changes in the surface features of the Red Planet beyond the capabilities of its predecessors, and even photographing many of the landers and rovers. MRO remains in operation today.  In 2007, Mars Phoenix Lander was sent, partially reflying some of the experiments planned for Mars Polar Lander, as well as following new plans, adhering to the overall NASA strategy of “follow the water”.  Phoenix operated for 157 sols (Martian days), nearly double the planned mission duration, when the polar darkness of winter arrived and claimed it.  Among its many discoveries was the first observation of liquid water on the surface of Mars, likely water melted from the icepack by its landing rockets and then briefly recondensed on the spacecraft’s landing legs before boiling away in the low atmospheric pressure.

The 2011 window saw both tragedy and triumph — first, the loss of Roscosmos’ Fobos-Grunt and its piggybacked Yinghu0-1 lander from China, and then the brilliant success of Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity”.  Curiosity is by far the largest rover ever sent to another world, so large that the tetrahedral airbag lander of Mars Pathfinder and the twin Mars Exploration Rovers would not suffice.  Instead, a “Skycrane” vehicle was devised to bring it in like a helicopter.  The system worked perfectly, and Curiosity remains in operation today, although the perils of exploring the unknown have been driven home by the shocking amount of damage in its aluminum wheels; the rocks of Gale Crater seem to be much harder and sharper than those encountered anywhere else that landers have visited.

In 2013, NASA’s MAVEN was launched; it is still operating in Mars orbit today.  And another nation joined the elite club of deep space explorers, as India’s ISRO placed the Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission) spacecraft into Mars orbit.  It, too, remains in operation today.  2016, the latest Mars window, saw the launch of ExoMars, a collaboration between ESA and Russia, and its piggybacked Schiaparelli lander.  ExoMars remains in operation today, while Schiaparelli unfortunately was lost on landing.

So, that makes 20 continuous years of spacecraft operating on Mars or in orbit around it, and today there are six functioning orbiters and two functioning rovers on the surface.  It makes a wonderful change from the long drought of Mars exploration before that!  It is quite likely that there will never again be a gap in Mars exploration, not now that there are so many different space agencies at work on it.

The next window opens in May.  NASA plans to launch its InSight spacecraft (delayed from the 2016 window). In 2020, things get really busy. NASA has another mission in the planning stages, and Europe and Russia will be collaborating on the second ExoMars spacecraft.  China and Japan both are planning to make their second attempts for Mars, and the United Arab Emirates is planning their first deep space mission, and India might manage their second Mangalyaan in that window (if not, they’ll likely make the following window).  And perhaps most intriguingly of all, in 2020 SpaceX is planning their Red Dragon mission, the first crewed mission to Mars (unless someone manages to beat them to it).  We’ll have to wait and see if they can actually make that date; it seems a tad ambitious to me!  But wouldn’t it be exciting?


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Opportunity keeps on trucking

The rover that doesn’t know how to quit, Mars Exploration Rover B “Opportunity” has just departed “Cape Tribulation”, a feature on the rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars.  It’s spent the last 30 months at this location, conserving power over the Martian winter (since unlike Curiosity, it’s solar powered), and now it’s ready to move on.  The next destination is a nearby valley in the huge crater’s rim, called “Perseverance Valley”.  It’s a good name for a valley soon to be explored by a spacecraft 13 years into its 3-month mission.  😉  Opportunity will begin by studying the top of the valley, then move down it in the sort of pattern you’d expect a geologist to take while studying erosion and deposits that may explain how the valley was formed.

Here’s a final full-color panoramic look at Cape Tribulation:

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New Shepherd flies a third time, and Opportunity spots a dust devil

First off, Blue Origins launched their fully reusable New Shepherd vehicle a third time.  The suborbital spaceflight was a complete success, moving them closer to a point where they can begin selling flights.

And then I have a cool Opportunity to pic to share, right after yesterday’s cool pic.  The rover spotted a bit of Martian weather: a dust devil!  This picture also does a great job of highlighting the challenging terrain the rover has been contending with.  It’s fortunately nice and smooth, but anything but level.


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MER-B Opportunity: Still Trucking Along

Thirteen years into its 90 day mission, Opportunity is still the rover that wouldn’t die.  (Not that it’s been easy; mission controllers have worked very hard to nurse it along.)  So what’s it up to now?  Well, it’s trying to climb the steepest incline it’s ever attempted, in hopes of getting close enough to put its sensor arm onto a bit of rock on the top of a ridge nicknamed Knudsen Ridge in Marathon Valley in Endeavour Crater.  The rock looked very intriguingly like it might give more clues to Mars’ hydrological history, which is of course the primary mission of the Opportunity rover.  Knowing that the terrain would badly challenge the robot, mission controllers commanded enough wheel turns to advance it 20 meters if they were on level terrain; due to the steep incline (32 degrees!), the wheels slipped instead and they only traveled about nine centimeters.  So instead, they’ve gone back down the slope and moved along to another interesting outcrop.

It really is the rover that won’t give up. 😉

The rover did return this rather interesting view during one of its self-inspection photo sessions — it appears all the juddering and jolting that would’ve happened during that unsuccessful climb dislodged the fine dust that covers the rover.  Maybe this could become a new way of shaking off the dust?


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