Happy Anniversary, Opportunity

With all the fuss being made over dear Curiosity landing on Mars last year (which I still contribute to), it became far too easy for us to forget about Opportunity, another rover already trekking around the surface of the red planet.

We love ’em and leave ’em up there, to be sure. Poor little robots.

But Opportunity made a name for itself and Mars research long before Curiosity dropped down on its sky crane. In fact, today marks the 9 year anniversary of Opportunity’s own landing. Opportunity wasn’t lowered down by fancy crane, but instead bounced onto the surface of Mars on giant airbags along with its twin rover, Spirit. The rovers were expected to do their little robot research for 3 months…

Turns out, both were a bit more dedicated to science than NASA planned. Spirit continued operating until 2010, and Opportunity is still going strong and is now starting its 10th year on Mars (meaning it’s lasted 36 times the three months it was supposed to).

But, as JPL’s John Callas, manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project, said:

What’s most important is not how long it has lasted or even how far it has driven, but how much exploration and scientific discovery Opportunity has accomplished.

Too true. After all, it was the work of Opportunity that gave us the first hard evidence that there had once been flowing water on the Martian surface (As an aside here, my galleons, do you lot remember receiving the news of that find? Because I doMan, I was beyond excited. I can still remember us all talking about it in our algebra class. One of those rare times science got a front-row seat over celebrity gossip and hunting stories.). And it’s still up there, rolling along, doing some science.

Right now, while Curiosity continues getting the limelight over in Yellowknife Bay, Opportunity is on the other side of the planet at Endeavor Crater, looking around for some clay. Scientists are hoping to find specific minerals (like smectite) in the clay around the crater, which would indicate there had previously been Martian water with less acidity than previous water sites Opportunity has discovered in its 9 year sojourn. These minerals would speak of an environment more hospitable to life.

Interestingly enough, this means that Opportunity is moving to the next phase of the Mars Program architecture, going from simply “Following the Water” to “Determining Habitability”. This was something Opportunity was never supposed to do (and is actually Curiosity’s mission).

While there’s enough science to be done up there for both robots, I can’t help but quietly think, “You show that young whippersnapper, Opportunity.” Curiosity certainly has big shoes to fill, but Opportunity’s not quite ready to take them off yet. Opportunity is a grand scientific accomplishment, both for its own amazing self and the incredible work its doing.

Our hats are off to you, Opportunity. Happy anniversary.

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