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Happy 8th, Opportunity!

Posted: January 27, 2012 10:31 a.m.
Updated: January 30, 2012 5:00 a.m.

This past Thursday, Time Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger wrote a lovely homage to Opportunity, the little Mars rover that could.

Who would have thought back on Jan. 25, 2004, when Opportunity bounced around the Martian surface on landing, that it would be still be chugging along eight years later?

After all, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) designed the mission to only last a minimum of 90 days -- a year or two at most.

As Kluger points out, Opportunity has outlasted its twin, Spirit, by almost two years, creeping at a maximum speed of .1 mph. (And here I thought some of the folks on DeKalb Street drove slow.) At that crawl, Opportunity’s has -- in what I think is one of Kluger’s best lines -- “put just 14 mi. (22 km) on its odometer.”

Opportunity’s mission, like Spirit’s, has been to see if it could find any evidence of life, past or present, or at least conditions that could support life now or ages ago. Kluger correctly states that, in that regard, Opportunity has fulfilled its mission.

The clues? Salts, sedimentary deposits and minerals; and water ice on and just below the Martian surface. For instance, just last month, Opportunity sent a photograph back to Earth of a “ribbon” of gypsum -- a mineral that is left behind by evaporated water.

“This is the single most bullet-proof observation that I can think of that we’ve made this entire mission regarding the liquid water,” lead rover researcher Steve Squyres told Discovery News.

This discovery was unlike other mineral deposits Opportunity and Spirit had found earlier in their missions. The earlier finds were of “jumbled up, fascinating mess(es),” Squyres said, while the new find “formed right here. There’s no ambiguity about this.”

The gypsum find is exciting because if there was -- or perhaps still is -- water on Mars aside from that locked up at its poles, then there’s a chance there’s been life.

There’s little chance that life is, or was, anything that we could call a pet much like self-aware. Most scientists believe, however, there might have been, or could still be, microbial life.

That’s still exciting because scientists also believe that microscopic life contains the building blocks for more sophisticated life forms, including us. And if such conditions ever existed on Mars, then they could exist elsewhere in the universe. Sure, it’s a pretty big leap, but finding evidence of water-bearing life on Mars could mean we’re not alone -- that we could have neighbors even if they’re hundreds of light years away.

Popular Science’s website points out that the Martian winter has begun, so Opportunity is “nestled in” to an outcropping nicknamed “Greeley Haven.”

“(It’s) perched at a southerly angle to provide its solar panels with maximum light. Winds have been kind to Opportunity during the past eight years, occasionally brushing its panels clean....” wrote Popular Science’s Rebecca Boyle.

Boyle reports that one of Opportunity’s remaining “key missions” is to use its high-gain antenna to provide Earth-bound scientists information about Mars’ core. It will apparently do this by tracking Earth and measuring the Doppler shift as Mars “wobbles.” OK, even for a geek like me, that was a little over my head.

As Opportunity celebrates (does a rover party?) its eighth anniversary on Mars, the question naturally becomes how much longer it can last. Boyle says the rover already has problems: an emission spectrometer no longer works and another spectrometer is almost out of cobalt-57 “juice.”

“I can’t say,” Mars Exploration Rovers Project Manager John Callas said in a NASA video. “I don’t think anyone knows. The rover is still in very good health. We’re seeing new geology, older geology. It’s a whole new window on the history of Mars.”

Callas said scientists believe Mars was the “most Earth-like” early in its history, which would be millions of years ago. He said there is evidence of that in the minerals Opportunity has found at Endeavor Crater, where it has most recently poked around. Callas said one of Opportunity’s biggest advantages (as was Spirit’s) is that it moves.

“There’s new stuff every day,” he said.

As Callas points out in the video, Opportunity’s going to have a new neighbor soon: Curiosity. The new rover, on its way to Mars now, is about the size of a small SUV (five times bigger than the previous rovers). According to NASA’s website, Curiosity will utilize a new landing technique to reach Mars’ surface: a “sky crane.” As Popular Science’s Boyle said, “When parachutes and airbags won’t do the trick, you’ve got to land like a hovercraft, lowering precious cargo from a flying crane.”

Wow, check out this picture and seriously cool video!

Curiosity will sport six wheels, allowing the rover to rotate 360 degree when necessary along with a package enabling it to drill rock and scoop up soil samples, dividing them up to be analyzed inside the rover. It’s also nuclear powered, so it won’t be dependent on the sun. It’s set to touch down Aug. 6 at the foot of a mountain in Gale Crater.

How long will Curiosity last? Its “prime mission” is set to go two years. However long it lasts, it’ll have Opportunity’s amazing longevity to emulate.

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