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Why Is The Opportunity Rover So Important To Science?

Opportunity Rover
(Image: NASA)

As they say: All good things must come to an end. Well, there’s no better example for astronomers than the official declaration of NASA’s Opportunity rover mission coming to a close. While the world mourns the loss of a long lasting robot explorer, we’re also beyond appreciative of the massive amounts of knowledge made possible by this mission. Why is the Opportunity rover so important to science? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

If one is to tell a story about an end, then what better place to start than the beginning? The reason this rover was created in the first place was to hopefully learn much more about the current status of Mars’ geology and gain hints on its mysterious past. Opportunity was paired with another rover, Spirit, which ended its mission in 2011. Both rovers were a part of the Mars Exploration Rover project and now with the recent news from NASA, the second (and final) rover for that mission is no longer functioning. Launched in 2003, Opportunity made it to Mars by early 2004 where it began its 90 day planned mission. Nearly 15 years later the rover is now finally off line and no longer communicating with us on Earth. Needless to say the decade-plus extra time scientists got out of this mission has lead to some pretty remarkable science.

For starters, the Opportunity rover helped scientists better understand the rocks and minerals on the Martian surface.  Opportunity’s geologic exploration included studying the Martian soil, of which many samples included sediments that are only possible on Earth in the presence of liquid water. Opportunity also did some ground-truthing, giving up close detailed information from the ground of regions where the only previous studies were done by using orbiting satellites high above the martian surface.

This small-golfcart-sized rover also broke a record - the longest distance driven off of the Earth. So, how far did Opportunity travel in the nearly fifteen years of roving around on Mars? About 28 miles all together which includes the max speed of traveling 0.11 miles per hour! Meaning, if the rover started at the Science Museum, after about fifteen years and a lot of stop and go maneuvers for geological studies, it would have made its way to about the Goochland area. Short distance, but a huge contribution to science.

Other Mars missions will of course continue on… like the Curiosity rover, the recently landed Mars InSight mission, and the orbiting spacecraft still collecting information on the planet next door. Regardless, this long lasting robotic explorer has certainly captured the hearts of astronomy fans around the globe and we too are beyond thankful for scientists to have had this opportunity.