Scientists expected the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity to run for three months. Three years later, the hardy rovers are still operating on opposite sides of the red planet.
This is Opportunity’s story.
(Applause) "We're on Mars everybody!"
John Callas, Mars Exploration Rovers Project Manager :
Well, Opportunity was blessed with good fortune right from sol 1, right from the first day.
Because when we landed and we took our first images from the lander we looked around. We were in this tiny little crater we call Eagle Crater, but there was exposed bedrock
Emily Eelkema, Former Mars Exploration Rover Mission Manager
It was just this flat sand field with a little curb of outcrop rock. Everybody was stunned.
Albert Haldemann, Mars Exploration Rover Deputy Project Scientist
We found bedrock. We found rock attached to the planet. We went to Meridiani Planum based on a clue of hematite; hematite, a mineral that on Earth forms in the presence of water, liquid water. And to see it in these blueberries, in these round spherules strewn across the surface, that was the nature of the hematite. I don't think anyone predicted that ahead of time.
Next, Opportunity set a course for Endurance crater. Engineers on Earth had to teach her to drive downhill, taking grindings along the way.
They would drive down a few meters, do a RAT hole in the outcrop of rock and analyze it for chemicals, and so they were able to see how the mineral composition of the rocks changed as we went further down.
Mars did have a watery past. It was episodic in that sometimes it was wet and sometimes it was dry. You know, not unlike the Death Valley here in California.
We knew 6 kilometers to the south was this giant crater called Victoria. Wow! 6 kilometers away. Could we get there?
Scott Maxwell, Mars Exploration Rover Planner
Take this rover, kind of laboriously work our way through this huge maze of ripples to get ourselves south to the scientific Promised land.
All of a sudden we got to one day where we drove over a dune and stopped.
For weeks, Opportunity sat in a sand trap. Engineers raided hardware stores to buy materials to simulate a Martian sand dune. They created a technique of maneuvering a few centimeters at a time to extract her.
The next big challenge that hit us is the robotic arm on Opportunity developed a degradation in one of its joints.
Now when we drive Opportunity, we have to be sure that wherever we're driving her to, she's going to end up in a place where it's safe to take the arm back out.
Even with the aging rovers, we've been able to still return the same amount of science.
After a stop to examine more layered outcrops at Erebus crater, Opportunity reached the Promised land, Victoria.
I think we've gone from Mars being a place that's star-like, that's other worldly, of the realm of astronomers, to a place that geologists and climatologists roam, where it’s a world that works sort of like our world.
As Opportunity explores Victoria, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will keep a watchful eye.