Mars rover ‘Opportunity’ is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover program. Two rovers were launched, the other one being Spirit, on board the Delta 2 Heavy on July 7, 2003. These Rovers landed on Mars in January 25, 2004 each on opposite sides of the planet. Opportunity was also called MER-B OR MER-1 while Spirit was MER-A. Although they were originally designed to operate for little over 90 earth days, Spirit functioned till getting stuck in 2009. Spirit ceased communication by 2010 but opportunity continued functioning. Opportunity has exceeded its intended lifespan by almost 15 years. Since landing on Mars, opportunity has covered 45 kilometres of the rough terrain. However, it went into hibernation after getting stuck in a planet wide sand-storm in July 2018. There hasn’t been any further communication from the rover.

Opportunity and Spirit are solar powered robots that use six wheels to manoeuvre around the terrain. They weigh around 180 kilograms and can move at a maximum of 5 centimeters per second. Solar panels were used to produce the necessary energy to operate the rovers in the mornings, while lithium ion batteries stored energy for use during night-time. The power usage of the rovers was handled according to the environmental conditions. During winters or periods of dust storms, the rovers were designed to perform only the most necessary actions to consume limited amount of power. Sunlight during these periods would be scarce. During extreme weather conditions the rovers have even had to operate for mere few minutes each day.

The landing site of Opportunity was an asteroid impacted crater. The rover made significant discoveries in the site. Presence of water in ancient Mars was discovered by Opportunity. The rover spent two years examining the surface of the crater. It was then programmed to go to another site called the Endurance crater. The rover identified and examined a completely intact meteorite. Towards the end of 2014 Opportunity started to experience memory loss or amnesia due to a fault in one of its power banks. This fault resulted in failure to write data onto the non-volatile memory. A temporary fix was used for a brief period, where the system was directed to ignore errors and warnings. Upon further damage to the memory, scientists decided to not use non-volatile memory at all. The rover was directed to use RAM only.

Despite the numerous scientific achievements by the Opportunity rover, the program faces an uncertain future as there has been no communication from it’s side since the planet wide dust storm last year. Scientists believed that the rover would commence functioning after the dust storm cleared. They now think major damage could have been caused by the storm or large amounts of dust could have settled into the solar panels thereby preventing normal functioning of the rover. All hope may not be lost just yet as they believe another period of extreme winds could potentially clear the dust from the rover, after which they could restart it and commence normal function.

Written by Shivaadith Anbarasu

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