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Science News: A look back at Opportunity

– G.A., Senior Editor

Humanity’s desire to explore the solar system highlights the incredible fragility of the human body and the difficulty of sending humans great distances from Earth and returning them home safely. Therefore, space agencies like NASA and JAXA have relied on unmanned spacecraft and rovers to collect valuable data from incredible distances and beam it back to earth. One of the most cherished rovers was the Mars rover, Opportunity.

After originally landing on the surface of Mars in 2004, the Opportunity rover drove across the surface of Mars while communicating with scientists back on Earth. In 2018, Opportunity was caught in the largest dust storm ever recorded on Mars. A thick coating of dust on Opportunity’s solar panels and possible physical damage caused Opportunity’s batteries to drain and NASA was unable to reestablish communication. After waiting for several months for windy weather that could have removed the dust from Opportunity’s solar panels, NASA made the difficult decision to end the mission on February 13, 2019.

Although only designed to last 90 days, Opportunity surpassed all expectations by functioning for almost 15 years and driving more than 45 km across the Martian surface. The incredible volume of data collected by the rover and the thousands of pictures sent back to Earth have dramatically improved scientists’ understanding of the geological history of Mars.

While space agencies, and now even private businesses, continue to investigate methods for safely transporting humans to and from space stations and even nearby planets, for the foreseeable future, it will still remain necessary for the most distant and dangerous work to be performed by unmanned spacecraft and rovers. As demonstrated by Opportunity, putting faith in technology can provide surprising benefits.

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