Opportunity: 14 years on Mars
On Mars since 2004, Opportunity is the longest-running rover that has ever explored a Solar System body: here is the challenge it is facing now.
For several months Opportunity is located in the Perseverance Valley, a depression inside the crater Endeavor: it was not a walk that of the twin rover of Spirit, on Mars since 2004, indeed, it was the most difficult and challenging stretch since the Mars Exploration Rover-B (Opportunity, for friends) is located on the Red Planet. The slope, not particularly sloping, however, is gravel and this has meant that the rover was more than once in difficulty and only the ability of the pilots (of the mission control) has avoided the worst – among them Paul Bellutta, one of the pilots both of Opportunity and of Curiosity.
WATER OR WIND?
Opportunity has so far resisted well: it is still in good condition, even if a wheel is semi-blocked (when cornering, now it seems to drive a tank). The descent into the Perseverance Valley was decided because this area presents an enigmatic feature: from the observations made by the probes in orbit it seemed that it had been dug – from water spills or muddy debris – into a recess about 220 meters long.
From the analysis of the sediments it is hoped to obtain information on that ancient water. Some scientists had also advanced an alternative hypothesis: the valley could have been excavated by the winds, by streams of dried debris or by the whole of the two phenomena. To understand which of the hypotheses to aim, all that remained was to start the exploration, even knowing the dangers that the rover would have encountered along the descent.
IN THE STORM.
Several times it was necessary to stop Opportunity and make it rise a few meters, to avoid unforeseen and dangerous obstacles to overcome. Furthermore, the Martian winter had to be faced, which required to minimize the movements of the rover and to use the energy produced by the solar panels to “keep the tools warm”, continuing only with the photographic mapping of the area. A sandstorm that has touched the area has “dirty” the photovoltaic panels, reducing their capacity until the arrival of other winds that have partially cleaned them up.
At the moment the collected data have not yet allowed to understand if the valley has been excavated by water or wind and therefore the exploration continues. A mission not easy, it was said, on slopes that in some places exceed the theoretical limits of design of Opportunity, but the robot explorer that faces the sands to 80 million kilometers from us, does not throw in the towel.