Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Opportunity 2000

Panorama taken on the rim of Erebus Crater
At least according to NASA, the Opportunity rover is experiencing its 2000th Martian day on the planet Mars. By my count, which I may have screwed up, the robotic vehicle has been on Mars for 2053, or 2054 days, counting two Leap Years that have transpired since it landed there on January 25th, 2004. Those would be earth days. The Martian day is approximately 38 minutes longer than ours, so hopefully that would account for the discrepancy, although I have neither the energy or the fortitude to make sure. Anyway Opportunity has been there a hell of a lot longer that it was planned to, 1910 Martian days more, and counting.
The mission was only designed to last 90 Sols (Martian days), but like that little Energizer Bunny I keep seeing on TV, it keeps on going, and going, and going... So has it's twin, the rover Spirit, all the way over on the other side of the planet (although it's currently caught in a sand pit, but the rovers have been caught before and have been able to extricate themselves, with a little help from the folks at mission control, here in Los Angeles at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory). The mission for both rovers have been extended 5 times already, with no end in sight.
Some of the things Opportunity has done since it's time on Mars has to crawl around and look at stuff it may happen to come across. Like the first meteorite found on another planet which is called Meridiani Planum. It was also supposed to look at the local rocks, dig trenches in the Martian dirt to see what was down there. Guess what was down there. Ice, that's what was down there. The ice melted and went away though. That's how they knew it was ice, because ice does that. But finding water that was apparently readily available was very important, and one of the mission's objectives. Because as far as we know, all forms of life require water, and if there is water on Mars, which there seems to be, then the possibility of finding forms of life there stands a better chance. Why would that be important, even if all the life they find there are little micro organisms that can't talk or do anything cool? Because the only examples of life that we have so far are those we've found on our own planet. To find life that has evolved independently of that of Earth's would be great to study, and would indicate that with the right ingredients, life is easily formed, and the chances that life has evolved throughout the galaxy, and the universe are greatly enhanced. It was also designed to examine geological formations looking for minerals and things like that, calibrate observations with spacecraft in Martian orbit, and other scientific stuff of a similar nature, which is very good.
Both Opportunity and Spirit (which has been working longer on Mars than Opportunity by 20 Sols) are robots at about 4.9 feet tall, 7.5 feet wide, and 5.2 feet long. Each has six wheels, and each wheel has it's own engine, or motor. And it's top rated speed is 2 inches per second, although it averages only a fifth of that (one must keep in mind that these rovers are driven by people back here in earth, and the distance between the Earth and Mars varies as the two planets follow their elliptical orbits around the Sun, from anywhere between 36 million miles, to 250 million miles, and since the radio waves that are sent to provide commands to the rovers travel at the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second in the vacuum of space, the real time driving of these vehicles can be a bit tricky). Both have pieces of the fallen World Trade Center incorporated into their hardware, as a form of memorial. The rovers are able to recharge their batteries by the use of solar panels, getting energy directly from the Sun, which makes them vulnerable to Martian dust storms. Indeed, in June of 2007, both Spirit and Opportunity almost experienced total system failure do to global dust storms which blocked 99% of the sunlight reaching the robots.
Opportunity landed about 25 miles from it's intended target area, and rolled smack dab into an impact crater by accident. Scientists back home were very happy about that, as there was lots of interesting rocks to look at and fondle. They were so excited that they named the crater, Eagle, in honor of a golf metaphor. From there it roved over to Endurance Crater, which had a lot more interesting rocks. It also found Martian clouds in the sky, similar to cirrus clouds found here on Earth.
The rover has traveled to other craters using it's time well, digging trenches, and analyzing things, getting stuck in a sand trap and digging itself out. It has been sick with shoulder problems, and cold, but both Spirit and Opportunity have fulfilled every mission parameter and science experiment it was designed to fulfill, times 22.2, has exceeded expectations by millions, and has been the most successful mission of it's kind, and one of the most successful in history.
Right now Opportunity is on it's way to Endeavor Crater, about 7 miles away, where they expect to find some more interesting rocks. It is expected to take 23 months (Earth months) to get there, avoiding hazards on the way.
I for one wish both Spirit and Opportunity further safe journeys and great discoveries. Because of their work and the knowledge they have provided, someday perhaps astronauts from Earth will come to Mars and visit them, and one day, bring them back home.

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