Last Thursday (24th) was my birthday – big number, don’t ask – but to be honest my mind was on a different anniversary: the following day, Friday, was another birthday of a kind – the 15th anniversary of Opportunity landing on Mars.
Yes, 15 years ago I got up at silly o’clock on a chilly morning to watch NASA TV’s live coverage of the second MER landing on Mars. With Spirit already down safely and returning spectacular photos, we were all a little punch-drunk on success and taking it for granted that Oppy would land trouble-free too. When the first images started to come in, showing Oppy had landed IN a small crater – her now famous “Cosmic Hole In One” – it was just wonderful…
And soon after she left the crater and began to rove. And she roved, and roved and roved across Mars for the next 14 years. She crossed vast deserts of ochre dust; rolled up to, drove down into and back out of ancient impact craters; discovered meteorites shining in the sunlight; watched the Sun rise and set thousands of times, and so much more…
After reaching Endeavour Crater Opportunity started to climb, and eventually she reached the highest point of the ancient crater’s western rim. Now she began exploring the ridges, outcrops and valleys she found up there, high above the crater floor, and was doing fascinating science – until last June when a terrible dust storm brewed-up, smothering not just Endeavour Crater where she was but most of the planet. With the Sun blotted from the sky her power levels fell and with dust swirling and wafting around her, falling like soft rain on her solar panels, Opportunity sent back one last incomplete image and then fell into a deep sleep…
That was 231 days ago. Nothing – not a bleep a chirp or a cheep – has been heard from Opportunity in that time. Efforts to regain communication with the stricken rover have continued during that time, with the MER team regularly trying to make contact with Opportunity. Until now their efforts have been familiar to anyone who has ever lost a pet – they have basically been standing on Earth’s front porch calling out Opportunity’s name into the darkness, hoping she will answer or, better still, come trotting out of the shadows, oblivious to the worry and panic she has caused. It hasn’t worked.
And it seems that we’re now entering the endgame of attempts to contact Opportunity.
The MER team has tried addressing all the most likely – and easiest to fix – reasons why Opportunity has stayed silent but without success. That means whatever the problem is might be something less likely but more serious. So it was no real surprise when NASA posted an update yesterday reporting that over the next few weeks the MER team is going to step up its efforts to contact the rover, be more aggressive in its approach, and try things they haven’t tried before – but if those efforts fail there will be a review to see what else, if anything, can be done.
This is a very serious situation, to be sure, and things are not looking good. It is clear now that Opportunity is in real trouble. She isn’t just having a nap until the skies clear properly, because the skies are now a lot clearer than they were. More worrying is the fact that the annual “windy season” at Endeavour Crater – which they were relying on to help them – is almost over; the team had high hopes that at some point in January Mars itself would help them by blowing the dust off the rover’s back with gusts of wind which always, always blow across the crater at this time of year. If the problem with Oppy was simply that she was “a bit dusty” then the chances are that she would have been cleaned enough by now to wake up and phone home. The fact that she hasn’t suggests there is something else wrong.
Time is now running out. The windy season will soon end, and winter is coming to Endeavour crater, bringing with it cruel, circuit-chilling temperatures that Opportunity really needs to be awake and warmed-through for if she’s going to survive.
So this is it people, crunch time. If we haven’t heard from Opportunity within, I reckon, another month, it will be hard for even the most optimistic, most loyal Opportunity supporter to believe that she is coming back to us. And decisions, hard decisions, will have to be made at NASA.
Of course, there’s still hope – there’s always hope! – and it’s never a good idea to bet against a Mars rover, or her team, and I for one am absolutely NOT giving up on Oppy… but we might be getting close to the day when we have no choice but to finally, finally, let her go.
Which will be a bad day, a very sad and disappointing day for many of us. We all knew that Opportunity’s mission wouldn’t – couldn’t – last forever, but to end in this way, smothered by a stupid dust storm, would be just grossly unfair, especially when she is in such good shape otherwise; if the dust storm hadn’t come along she could have had many more months, perhaps even years, of exploring ahead of her.
Of course, there’s nothing we can do except sit here, waiting for news and wishing the MER team well in their efforts to contact Oppy and wake her up. If anyone can do it, they can, and will.
Come on, Oppy… wake up…