NASA’s Opportunity rover reached Mars in 2004 for what was intended to be a 90-day mission to analyze soil and rocks and help scientists better understand the Red Planet. To the pleasant surprise of “Oppy’s” engineers, the rover was able to recharge its solar battery and was able to explore Mars for 14 years, sending back troves of data to Earth. Oppy began suffering “amnesia” (or, the aging of its software system) and ceased communicating with NASA last June after a massive dust storm. However, before NASA officially puts Oppy to sleep, they will attempt to make contact one last time.
As NASA said in a statement, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have begun transmitting a new set of commands to the Opportunity rover in an attempt to compel the 15-year-old Martian explorer to contact Earth. The new commands, which will be beamed to the rover during the next several weeks, address low-likelihood events that could have occurred aboard Opportunity, preventing it from transmitting. Time is of the essence for the Opportunity team as the “dust-clearing season” – the time of year on Mars when increased winds could clear the rover’s solar panels of dust that might be preventing it from charging its batteries – is drawing to a close. Meanwhile, Mars is heading into southern winter, which brings with it extremely low temperatures that are likely to cause irreparable harm to an unpowered rover’s batteries, internal wiring and/or computer systems. If the transmission strategy generates a response from the rover, engineers could attempt a recovery. If Opportunity does not respond, the project team would again consult with the Mars Program Office at JPL and NASA Headquarters to determine the path forward.
Why This Matters: Popular Science explained that Oppy has lasted long outlived its initial 90-day mission because Martian winds have periodically cleaned dust off the rover’s solar panels and allowed it to recharge. This was an unexpected boon, but it’s allowed Oppy to survive 55-times its planned lifespan. The little-rover-that-could has helped NASA make important discoveries about our neighboring planet, like the fact that ancient Mars had the right conditions to support life. If Oppy is indeed put to sleep then we all owe it a debt of gratitude and perhaps a landmark named in its honor if we indeed colonize Mars.