A Missed Opportunity

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It was a somber week at JPL as sadness we somehow knew was coming came to fruition.  Officially speaking, JPL announced on February 13th that the Mars Exploration Rover – B (or MER-B), in combination with the Mars Exploration Rover program (or MER-1), completed its mission.  Emotionally speaking … we lost Oppy.

Oppy was the ‘little rover that could’.  He was a symbol of what smart people could do when they didn’t have a lot to go with.  He defied expectations.  When success seemed a pipedream, he not only succeeded, he exceeded.

Opportunity was the full name of MER-B, a Mars rover about the size of an all-terrain vehicle weighing about 400lbs.  Opportunity, or Oppy for short, was one of two rovers built and launched around the same time.  Oppy’s twin, Spirit, was nearly identical to it’s brother with the only real difference is it would land in a different part of Mars to help collect that much more data.  Their objectives initially were to explore the geological makeup of Mars, understand the soils, rocks, and structure so that further studies could look into the existence of water or life on the Red Planet.  A secondary object was more about a proof of concept.  For the effective exploration of another planet, whatever science platform had to be mobile.  Unlike all previous Mars programs (e.g. Pathfinder, Viking) these rovers were made to move independent of their landing vehicle.  Also, during that time of build and launch, NASA was looking for more cost-effective means to continue their scientific goals.  Building two rovers at the same time was one of those cost-cutting methods.  Another was that the missions were designed for short life experiments.  So what you basically got was two Rovers that were meant to be shot up onto Mars, allowed to roam around for a bit, then call it good shortly after that.

Opportunity was planned for a 90-day mission. He lasted over 14 years.

That would be as if a child was born with a defect limiting him to barely reach an age when he could talk but instead goes on to live a full lifetime … and then two more lifetimes.  The designers knew this was a possibility, I mean, you don’t just magically make something last fifty times longer than expected.  In layman’s terms, what they did was they just chilled out more.  The challenge was always going to be keeping the batteries charged, so they spent more time sunning with the solar panels eating up the rays, and spending less time running it’s more power hungry instruments.  Each day, each year, each chance, Opportunity would send back photos and data of Mars.  It traveled father than any other man-made rover has, exceding more than the length of a marathon.

Of course, they were doing the same thing with Spirit, but Spirit ran into some bad luck.  After six-and-a-half years, it got stuck into some soft sand, and after months of trying to free the rover, they designated it stuck forever, and switched to a stationary mission.  Sometime after that, Spirit failed to check-in.  It had undergone some low power situations, a problem when you can’t turn into the sun, and it’s theorized that the batteries got so low the internal clock reset and the unit could never figure out when was a good time to call home.  Spirit ended it’s mission 6 years, 9 months, & 12 days after landing.

Oppy had his ups and downs too.  In 2005, Oppy got stuck in the sand so deep that it took up nearly half its front and back wheels.  JPL overcame this by recreating the conditions here on earth, including the sand, rover, and surrounding topography.  A couple days later they succeeded in moving just a couple centimeters, but it proved what they could do.  Within a week, Oppy was free and ready to keep rolling.  It got stuck a couple more times over the years and survived seasonal dust storms when the sky nearly blacked out threatening power interruptions again.

Eventually, it was one of these dust storms that did him in.  They said that it took a historic dust storm to end a historic mission.  A Mars year lasts about two of ours, and “annually” there would be a dust storm event above where Oppy drove.  By the time the storm of 2018 was rolling in, Oppy had survived four others, but this one was going to be a doozy.  Temperatures were expected to drop so low that they could break soldier joins.  When Oppy operated in clear skies and highest efficiency, it’s solar panels could collect up to 700 Watt-Hours of power.  During the storms in the past, Oppy reported only receiving around 300 Watt-Hours.  On May 8. 2018 before the storm arrived, Oppy reported an average of 667 Watt-Hours.  June 10, 2018, he reported 22 Watt-Hours, about 3% of what it is capable of doing.

June 10, 2018 was also the last day we received word from Oppy.   Technically speaking, the last transmission sent power diagnostics and atmosphere conditions.  In human terms, we say the last transmission was:
“My Battery is Low, and It’s Getting Dark.”

Three months later, the storms cleared and we began to try to reach him.  He never responded.  We tried again, and again.   For months we tried.

During that time, the emotions started pouring out.  Fourteen years is a long time.  People on the program now were inspired into space sciences because of seeing that little guy launch and land.  Opportunity inspired and gave hope.  While we all knew it would someday end, it seemed none of us were all that ready for it.  Oppy was like our pet, the little guy who would send a message whenever we would call him home.

Earlier this week, JPL sent one last transmission.   Our folks weren’t carrying any hopes for a miracle really,   They chose a song by Billy Holiday called “I’ll Be Seeing You”.   They were inspired by the line:

I’ll find you in the morning sun
And when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you

I was having a conversation with someone about the end of the mission this week.  They felt sad that all these years, we left him to die up there all alone.  I told them that saying that was unfair, that Oppy was an object not something that we would bury like in a grave.  When they were about to get on me for sounding so cold, I put it like this:

Oppy had a mission to do.  To go up to Mars, and to make it possible that someday man will walk on Mars.  That day will happen.  That means there will also come a day when someone is going to find Oppy, clean if free of dust, and thank him for showing us the way.  I couldn’t think of a better way to remember him.

So … we miss you Opportunity, but we’ll be seeing you.  Some day.

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