The Little Rover That Could

We think you can, Opportunity.
opportunity on Mars

An artist's impression of the Opportunity rover on Mars. NASA

NASA’s Opportunity rover is the longest surviving rover on Mars. On Saturday, February 17, it experienced its 5,000th dawn on a distant planet. It was only scheduled to see 90. But Opportunity’s long journey started much earlier, at the height of the space race. With gratitude towards Watty Piper and his beloved Little Engine, we start our story in the early 1960s. NASA is working on multiple fronts, pushing humans toward the Moon for the first time, but also struggling to reach Mars and Venus with uncrewed spacecraft. The USSR is also zipping towards both planets, but a string of launch failures on their end gives NASA scientists and engineers some breathing room. Scientists aren’t sure what lies on the surface of Mars; does it contain life? What’s the atmosphere like? Is there water? To find out, they’ll have to take some major chances and try to get there.

WHIR WHIR WHIR CLICK CLICK CLICK EUREKA EUREKA The not-so-little space agency worked its way toward the distant red planet. It was a happy National Aeronautics and Space Administration, for it had such ambitious goals to carry. It was full of good scientific questions about that far-off world that needed answers.

There were places to explore with lots of water, and places that might have no water at all, and even maybe some clouds. Then there were the landforms—mountains and craters and valleys and canyons and the largest volcano you ever saw. And there were wishlists of soil samples and spectroscopy readings and laser drills and diamond-tipped grinders, microscopic imagers, biology experiments, and every kind of thing a scientist from Earth could want.

But that was not all—there was so much waiting to be found on the surface. Life might exist on the planet—from fossilized evidence from the past, or maybe even hardy microbes from the present. It might even be able to sustain life in the future with polar ice caps filled with water for future crewed visits, minerals and resources to build an industry and tell us more about the planet’s history. And to top it all off, by visiting that planet, we might get gorgeous images for a sweet inspiring treat.

The not-so-little agency was carrying all these good hopes for the scientists to the planet in the other elliptical orbit. It churned along, but it couldn’t make much scientific progress without more data. It tried and it tried, but its ideas about the other planet could not be explored any further unless the not-so-little agency actually visited Mars.

What were all the scientists on Earth to do without jolly instruments to play with and wholesome data to devour?

Mariner 4
The Mariner 4 spacecraft. NASA

“Here comes some shiny new funding!” cried some of the project managers. “Let us see what we can build with it!’

So all the scientists cried out together: “Please, shiny new funding! Do carry our missions to the planet in the other elliptical orbit. Our research has hit a roadblock, the Soviets might beat us to other worlds, and our scientists will have no data to work with if you don’t help us.”

But the shiny new funding was only able to accomplish so much. “I, pull you?” The Mariner missions snorted. “Listen, we still have to figure out some of the basics of visiting planets, much less exploring them. Mariner 3 failed to deploy correctly, Mariners 4, 6, and 7 actually managed to get some decent pictures of Mars while flying by, Mariner 8 didn’t even make it to Earth orbit, but hey, maybe Mariner 9 can get you at least a full map of the surface and a glance at Mars’ moons.” And off the Mariner missions went, either into orbit around the sun, smashed into a planet, or lost in the cold, dark depths of space.

How sad the not-so-little agency and all the planetary scientists felt!

There are always mixed feelings at the end of a mission: sadness that it’s over and excitement over what that mission managed to accomplish. The data from the Mariner missions to Mars was a surprise. It showed that there were no canals on the surface—as people had thought in the 1800s—but revealed the existence of massive canyons and volcanoes. This world was more complex than we’d initially thought, which meant that researchers were eager to return. Luckily, a more scientifically focused mission was already in development. Started in 1968, the Viking Missions equipped with the latest scientific equipment headed toward Mars. Their missions: to land safely on the planet’s surface, take pictures of what they saw, and test the soil around them for microbial life.

Then the scientists called out, “The Mariner missions aren’t the only missions we can launch! Here’s another one coming. A fine, big, strong one. Let’s see if it can help us!”

The scientists waved their grant proposals, and the Viking missions started toward the launchpad.

“Please, big strong developed mission! Do carry our scientific inquiries to the planet in the other elliptical orbit. Our scientists will have no data to work with if you don’t help us.”

“Whoa there,” the Viking missions bellowed. “I, pull all that data? I’m two impressive orbiter-lander pairs that can softly touch down on the surface of another planet. I can send you the most detailed maps of the surface you’ve seen yet. I’ll send you 1,400 shots from the ground, and take samples of iron-rich clays, and see dust storms from the surface for the first time. But my landers won’t be able to move around, they’ll stop communicating after 4-6 years, and their data will be stored on microfilm and ignored for two decades.” And so the Viking missions slowly lost communication with Earth.

The not-so-little administration and all the planetary scientists were very sad.

Viking 2 on Mars
An image taken by Viking 2 on Mars. NASA/JPL

The Viking missions hadn’t found any life, and NASA was entering a new phase of its existence. Starting in the 1970s its budget got slashed—even the Apollo missions came to an end. Mars was looking like a far more distant dream. One orbiter (Mars Observer) failed, another orbiter (the Mars Global Surveyor) succeeded. But we wanted to return to the surface, and this time move around. There was just one catch: NASA didn’t have a ton of money to build a robotic rover. In 1997, Pathfinder arrived at Mars.

“Cheer up,” cried the not-so-little-administration. “The big, strong Vikings were not the only missions in the world. Here’s comes another chance—we just have to keep it really low-cost and not blow the budget.”

So the not-so-little-administration waved its budget estimates.

“Please, shoestring budget and reduced timeline! Do carry our missions to the planet in the other elliptical orbit. Our research has hit a roadblock, and the Soviets are out of the race. With no one to compete with, we have to show that we can be cost-effective. Our scientists will have no data to work with if you don’t help us.”

The Pathfinder mission made it to Mars with the Sojourner rover, and at last humans were able to move a robot on the surface of the other planet. The planetary scientists were so excited they almost broke the internet. But the tiny rover only lasted for three months. “I am so tired, I must rest my weary battery. Also, I’m just not equipped with that much scientific equipment. I can’t help you reach any more of your lofty ambitions for this planet. I can not, I can not, I can not.” Eventually, Sojourner stopped communicating with Earth.

Then indeed the not-so-little administration was very sad and all the planetary scientists were ready to cry.

Sojourner and Pathfinder on the Mars surface. NASA

But the not-so-little administration called out: “Here are other missions coming, very hopeful missions, perhaps they will help us!”

Pathfinder’s little rover lasted three times as long as its planned mission, but was still a very brief interlude on the planet. Still, Sojourner’s short life showed that sending a rover to Mars was possible. In 2003, NASA launched two other, larger, scientifically equipped rovers to Mars.

The very hopeful missions came tip-tapping through budget meetings and feasibility studies. When they saw the not-so-little-administration’s need they stopped to say hello.

“What is the matter, my friends?” they asked kindly.

“Oh, hopeful missions!” the planetary scientists cried. “Will you pull us to the planet in the other elliptical orbit? We need more information, and we will have no data to work with if you don’t help us. Please, please help us.”

“I’m not very big,” the hopeful missions said. “The budget for your administration has been cut dramatically since you stopped competing with the Soviets.”

“But we must get to the other planet again in our lifetimes,” all the scientists said.

The missions looked at the tears and hope in the planetary scientists’ eyes, and thought of the generations of research that would be lost unless they helped gather more data.

Then they said: “I think I can—I think I can—I think I can,” and the planetary scientists hitched their hopes to Spirit and Opportunity, twin rovers bound for Mars.

Quickly, quickly, quickly they blasted off, padded with airbags to survive the landing and carrying a full fleet of science instruments.

VBROOM VBROOM went the Delta II rockets carrying the rovers into space, and all the flight engineers gathered in mission control began to cheer.

opportunity launch
Opportunity launches toward Mars. NASA

WHIRRR WHIRRR CRUNCH WHIRRR went Spirit and Opportunity, safely on the surface, “I think I can—I think I can—I think I can.”

In front of them lay a lifetime of information to gather. “I think I can—I think I can—I think I can” they repeated as they blew by the 90 days of their initial mission, gathering hundreds of thousands of pictures, digging into the rocks and minerals on the surface, and finding evidence that water once flowed on Mars.

“I think I can—I think I can—I think I can.”

The determined twin rovers weathered budget cuts on Earth and frigid winters on Mars.

Spirit sent its last transmission in 2010, and its mission ended in 2011, but Opportunity kept going completing a marathon on Mars, getting an AI upgrade and steadily building a mountain of knowledge for researchers back on Earth to work with.

“Hurrah, Hurrah!” Cried the not-so-little administration and all the planetary scientists. “We researchers are so happy because you helped us, little rover!”

And the Opportunity rover smiled and seemed to say as it awoke to its 5,000th dawn on the red planet “I thought I could—I thought I could—I thought I could.”

Opportunity isn’t alone on the surface. Curiosity, launched in 2012, is there too. Other landers, including the Mars 2020 rover currently under development, will soon join them.