A Tribute to the Opportunity Rover
Updated: Feb 10, 2019
The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has helped to revolutionize our understanding of the early history of Mars in its 14+ years of operation on the martian surface.
I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with the Mars Exploration Rover mission and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers since 2002. That was the year that I was selected as a Participating Scientist for the mission. Since that time Spirit and Opportunity, and after we lost Spirit in 2010, just Opportunity have been a huge presence in my life. I feel fortunate to have been involved with such an epic and history-making mission.
I have great memories of the landings of both Spirit and Opportunity in January 2004. I was out at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, CA for both. Two nail biting, suspenseful nights! During the first part of the mission, I was staying out in Pasadena and we on the science and engineering teams were working on Mars time. Mars has a day (or as we refer to a martian day, a “sol”) that is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day so we’d start each work day 40 minutes later than the day before… quite an experience.
Since I’m focusing on Opportunity here, and indeed, I was spending more of my time working on Opportunity in the early days of the mission, I can recount some of my memories from those early days. We struck the jackpot right off the bat with Opportunity. We had light-toned rock outcrops nearby right where Opportunity landed in the small (~20 meter diameter) Eagle crater. Soon we also looked down and found all these blue (in the 753, 535, and 432 nm Pancam color composites) spherules scattered everywhere on the surface and weathering out of the light-toned outcrop. When we finally were able to put our in situ instruments (the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, APXS; the Microscopic Imager, MI; and Mössbauer spectrometer) down on the outcrop we found that it was very rich in sulfur and contained the iron sulfate mineral jarosite. When we were able to examine a cluster of spherules (which we had dubbed as “blueberries”), we found that they were concentrations of the iron oxide mineral hematite. It was the orbital detection of gray hematite concentrated in the region of Meridiani Planum that led to the targeting of that region for Opportunity to land on.
Another amazing memory from the early part of the mission is when we left Eagle crater and traversed what, at the time, seemed like an enormous distance, about 800 meters (Opportunity went on to drive a distance longer than a terrestrial marathon race (26.22 miles or 42.2 kilometers)) to the larger 130 meter diameter Endurance crater where we got to analyzed a larger section of the sulfur-rich rocks that we came to call the Burns formation (in honor of MIT geochemist Roger Burns who had predicted the presence of iron sulfate minerals in the martian surface layer). I was there at JPL when we got the first images down from the rim of Endurance crater. We weren’t operating on Mars time by that point in the mission, but we still had the dedicated operation rooms so we were clustered around one of the screens to see the images show up. Discovery in action!