Pop the space champagne. Today marks the 10th Anniversary of NASA’s Opportunity rover landing on the red planet. Only expected to complete a 90 day mission back in 2004, the little bugger is still kicking a full 3,652 days later. Opportunity has made good use of this self-imposed contract extension, gathering scores of valuable images, braving conditions nobody guessed it could have survived, and recently discovering evidence that Mars was once highly suitable for life in a bygone era. Suffice to say, NASA has gotten their money’s worth on this one — which is hard to do when you drop $400 million.
The conditions on Mars are hard for us to imagine, but they include brutally cold winters and periodic dust storms which have partially embedded Opportunity on multiple occasions. The rover is not without its scars from these bouts with the elements. Along with a handful of computer crap-outs, the rover’s right front wheel has failed and it’s robotic arm has become “arthritic” (Can’t get CELEBREX® in space). Not to mention the emotional damage: Opportunity lost its brother in arms Spirit back in the Martian winter of 2009-10. But even with the loss of its companion, Opportunity marches on (it’s what Spirit would have wanted).
Exceeding all expectations, Opportunity continues to plug along on the Martian surface.
Just yesterday, one of Opportunity’s most important discoveries to date was announced. When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spotted exposed, aluminum-rich rock by Matijevic Hill, it dispatched Opportunity to investigate. The presence of exposed minerals like these can mean that relatively pH-neutral water may have existed there at some point in the past. Upon reaching the hill, Opportunity inspected the rocks and was able to confirm that mildly acidic water did indeed flow here long ago. Though it’s difficult to date Martian rocks, scientists put “long ago” at somewhere around 4 billion years. This discovery paints a picture of a distant Martian era that would have been perfectly hospitable to life. Unfortunately, if life forms ever did exist here, we have not yet found any direct evidence of them, such as rocks etched with notes like “microbe was here”, or “call cyanobacteria 4 a good time.”
These rocks near the Whitewater Lake region of Mars, show the kind of fissures and spherules indicative of pH-neutral water. (NASA/ JPL-Caltech / Cornell / Science)
Thanks to the longevity of Opportunity, tomorrow means the beginning of a second decade of a human presence on Mars. How much longer can this iron horse keep plugging? Does this mark the first chapter of a perpetual human presence on on Mars? Is it rude for us to stay that long? Speculate in the comments section below.