News, Science

#ThanksOppy: Mars Rover Mission Ends

Artist’s rendering: NASA/Cornell

Opportunity, a rover sent to explore the surface of Mars, has completed its mission, NASA announced on February 13.

The rover is a motorized vehicle about the size of a golf cart. It had explored the surface of Mars for more than 14 years. During that time, it sent back pictures and data that gave scientists valuable information about the history of the planet.

Opportunity’s mission lasted much longer than NASA had expected. The rover landed on Mars in January 2004. Scientists at NASA hoped it would work for 90 days and travel about one kilometre on the planet’s surface. Instead, it lasted for about 14 and a half years, travelled more than 45 kilometres, and sent back more than 217,000 images of the Martian landscape.

The Opportunity rover stopped sending messages to NASA after a huge dust storm on Mars in June 2018. Opportunity was powered by solar panels. NASA engineers believed that dust had covered the solar panels, causing the rover to shut down. (The rover’s last transmission to NASA warned that it was running low on energy.)

NASA hoped the strong winds on Mars would blow the dust away again and Opportunity would wake up. Engineers sent more than a thousand commands to Opportunity over several months, but the rover didn’t respond. After one final attempt to make contact on February 12, NASA announced that the mission was officially over.

At a press conference, Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said it was “with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude that I declare the Opportunity mission as complete.” 

A team of scientists, engineers and rover “drivers” on Earth worked together to plan the route Opportunity would take, and to solve problems that came up along the way.

The pictures and information that Opportunity sent home taught scientists a lot about the history of Mars. Today, Mars is cold and dry. But the images sent by Opportunity showed that ancient Mars probably had liquid water on and below its surface. That means it might have been able to support life.   

Following the announcement that Opportunity’s mission was officially over, NASA posted this comment on Twitter: “#ThanksOppy for being the little rover that could! A planned 90-day mission to explore Mars turned into 15 years of ground-breaking discoveries and record-breaking achievements.”

Former US president Barack Obama commented: “Don’t be sad it’s over, be proud it taught us so much.”

Opportunity lasted longer and travelled further than any other rover sent to another planet. (Spirit, a second rover sent to Mars at the same time as Opportunity, lasted until 2010.)

Another NASA rover, Curiosity, landed on Mars in 2012 and is still exploring the planet’s surface. NASA, China and a joint European-Russian team all have plans to send rovers to Mars in 2020.

Related sites:

Opportunity: NASA Rover Completes Mars Mission (video, 3:51)

Mars Exploration Rovers Overview

Images of Mars Sent Back by Opportunity

NASA’s Mars for Kids page

The Story Behind the Story: Anthropomorphism

By Jonathan Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
Opportunity sent its last transmission to NASA following the dust storm in June 2018. The data it sent  was translated into English as “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” This sentence has caused many people to anthropomorphise the rover. (Anthropomorphise means to give human characteristics or feelings to an object or animal.) On Twitter, many people are talking about the rover as if it were human. They are posting poems and pictures as tributes to Opportunity and insisting that NASA should bring it back to Earth.

Write your own poetic tribute to Opportunity OR anthropomorphise another object and write a tribute to it.

Reading Prompt: Demonstrating Understanding
What were the most important ideas in today’s article? Why do you think so? How do you know?

Demonstrate understanding of a variety of texts by identifying important ideas and some supporting details (OME, Reading: 1.4).

Demonstrate understanding of a variety of texts by summarizing important ideas and citing supporting details (OME, Reading: 1.4).

Demonstrate understanding of increasingly complex texts by summarizing important ideas and citing a variety of details that support the main idea (OME, Reading: 1.4).

Language Feature: Quotation Marks ( ” )
Quotation marks are punctuation marks that can be used to tell the reader different things. One of the reasons quotations marked are used is to tell the reader that a word is being used in a different way than it’s typical usage.

Read the following excerpt:

A team of scientists, engineers and rover “drivers” on Earth worked together to plan the route Opportunity would take, and to solve problems that came up along the way.

Why is “driver” in quotes?