Saturday, January 24, 2009

Opportunity on Mars - 5 years and counting

On January 24, 2004 (US time), the Mars rover "Opportunity" joined her twin sister, Spirit, on the surface of Mars. Spaceflight fans from around the world were once again able to follow the evens of entry, descent, and landing via live broadcast from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

When Opportunity sent back its first images shortly after landing, we were astonished to see what appeared to be cliff faces in the distance with outcrops of layered rock, the very thing Opportunity was sent to look for. It looked like a totally alien landscape compared to that in which Spirit landed. Spirit's landing site was strewn with volcanic rocks and looked very much like what we saw with the two Viking landers and the Mars Pathfinder. Opportunity's environs, on the other hand, showed no rocks at all on the surface around her, just sand, and what appeared to be cliff walls all around.

My first impression on seeing the first panorama from Opportunity was, "Gee, it landed in a crater!" Much to my delight, that turned out to be correct. The distant cliff walls were in fact only a few dozen feet away and were not much bigger than a roadside curb on Earth. Opportunity was able to drive over to the outcrop and explore it thoroughly in a couple of weeks.

With a 'warranted' lifetime of 90 sols and a couple of hundred meters of driving, Opportunity has really shown its mettle. It has lasted 5 Earth years on Mars and has driven 14 kilometers away from the crater in which it landed. It proved the past existence of surface water on Mars, spent much of a year inside Endurance Crater, photographed the wreckage of its own heat shield up close, returned the first images of a meteorite sitting on the surface of another planet, got stuck several times in sand dunes, survived a crippling dust storm, and most recently spent more than a year exploring Victoria Crater. It has now embarked on a multi-year, 12 km journey to Endeavour Crater. I hope she gets there!

I'm eternally grateful to JPL for giving the public immediate access to the photos from the rovers. Talented image specialists on sites such as can quickly turn these into full-color or amazing 3D images for the world to see. With Spirit and Opportunity on the move, we get an unprecedented chance to "be there" on Mars while sitting in the comfort of our own homes.

These two launch team patches were produced before Spirit and Opportunity were given their names. MER-A became Spirit and MER-B was Opportunity.

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