Inside Opportunity: Twelve years and counting…
Twelve years ago today on Jan. 25, 2004, the team I work with on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project crossed our fingers and held our breaths for a second time in a time span of some three weeks. Today was the day that MER-B, Opportunity, was scheduled to land on the Red Planet. Before the many milestones and discoveries that the robotic geologist would make could occur, it had to survive seven minutes of atmospheric entry.
“Entry, Descent, and Landing”, or EDL, is the period of the mission when the rover, encapsulated within its aeroshell, would transition from its long coast between worlds to entering the thin Martian atmosphere. Mars only has about one percent of the atmosphere that Earth does – and most of that is comprised of carbon dioxide. Still, it was enough to convert the roughly $410 million rover into so much confetti across the dusty Martian terrain.
Fortunately, that did not happen. In fact, the rover safely landed in the middle of a crater (dubbed “Eagle” soon afterward) that contained evidence that water once flowed on the surface of Mars.
Opportunity accomplished this in spades; however, perhaps the most historical fact about her mission is that it has lasted for 12 years – when one considers the mission was only expected to last some 90 Martian days or “Sols”, as those of us who work on Martian time call them.
For myself, this was just the start of one of the more busy, exciting, and challenging times of my life. Most of my schedule would now revolve around a roughly 408 lbs (185 kg) rover that was some 225 million kilometers away from where I was sitting (on average). If anything happened to her, I wouldn’t know for at least 30 minutes – if not longer.
Since the time that Opportunity landed on Mars, our perception of what the world she now calls home has drastically changed. We know that, in the planet’s past, it was once a place that life could have called home. We have also since determined that, under certain circumstances, liquid water is present on Mars today. These were things that we were either unsure of or did not think were possible.
Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, along with a small fleet of orbiters, who are surveying from high overhead, have shown that Mars is not quite the world we once thought it to be.
When the rover was plunging through the alien air that day twelve years ago, I never imagined the world that would be revealed to us in the years since that time.
NASA, at present, is stating that it is working to carry out the agency’s “Journey to Mars”; I look forward to the day when the first astronauts come across our rovers. On that day, Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity will have ‘seen’ their true purpose – that of pathfinders for the crews who will place the first footsteps on the Red Planet.
There were two rovers sent to Mars in 2004: MER-A and MER-B, with Opportunity being MER-B. Her sister, Spirit, MER-A got stuck in the red sands of Mars in May of 2009 and fell silent in March of 2010.
For me? Opportunity has been approved to remain funded through 2016 – my journey with her continues. I don’t know how long that journey will be – it’s already 11 years and 9 months longer than I had anticipated. Every day is a gift.
Dr. Jim W. Rice, Jr., is an Astrogeologist at the Planetary Science Institute, he has over 25 years research experience specializing on the surface geology and history of water on Mars. Dr. Rice is currently a Co-Investigator and Geology Team Leader on the Mars Exploration Rover Project (Spirit and Opportunity). Rice also has extensive mission experience as Associate Project Scientist on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey Orbiter Projects. He has been involved in Mars landing site selection and certification activities for every NASA Mars Mission since Mars Pathfinder. His career includes working for NASA, Astrogeology Headquarters of the United States Geological Survey, the Mars Spaceflight Facility located at Arizona State University and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory located at the University of Arizona.
My wife and I flew 13,800 kilometres to watch this launch and nearly missed out. There were repeated delays due to mechanical problems and then, on launch night, it was scrubbed because of high-altitude wind shear. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because, had the Delta 2 launched that night, it would have immediately disappeared into low cloud.
So, we are four days from having to go home and our launch team contact told us that a fault had been found in the Range Safety System battery – the RSS is to blow the rocket up if it should suddenly start heading towards Miami, or Disney World.
The problem with the battery was that it would need four days to take a new one out of refrigerated storage, thaw it out, plug it in and bring it on line. By then, we would have been halfway down the Pacific, on our way home.
However, a Delta 4, which was sitting on another pad, had an identical, flight-ready battery, so they took it out and fitted it to the Opportunity Delta 2.
Finally, it’s launch night and we are now three days from going home. We were watching from the official site at the KARS Park across the river and the rocket was lit up on the pad and we could see everything! It was a beautiful clear night and the count was progressing through its various holds and resumed at T-minus 4 minutes and we were starting to get a little excited and then they stopped the count at 7 seconds…
*Seven* seconds! Several words went through my mind, none of then suitable for this family show – over the decades, we went to the KSC for Shuttle launches and missed out each time.
The problem was in the first stage LOX tank drain/fill valve, which wasn’t sealing properly, so they shifted to the next launch opportunity, which was 44 minutes later and spent the next half hour opening and closing the valve.
They declared the problem fixed (big cheer from the spectators) and resumed the count from T-minus four minutes and, this time, they launched!
We will never forget the sight and sound of that glorious rocket rising into a clear night sky and, more than twelve years later, “our” rover is still operational.