Its solar panels are dusty and its instruments are weakening, but the intrepid Mars rover Opportunity is still undaunted. Today marks the rover’s eighth anniversary on the Red Planet, truly a feat for a mission that was designed to last a single season. As the rover embarks on its ninth year of work, it has some brand-new tasks that will give Mars scientists plenty to do long after it has beeped its last transmission home.
Opportunity is nestled for the winter at a rocky outcropping called Greeley Haven, perched at a southerly angle to provide its solar panels with maximum light. Winds have been kind to Opportunity during the past eight years, occasionally brushing its panels clean, but it’s been a while and the panels are pretty obscured. Opportunity’s science team has some winter missions planned, so the rover needs a steady power supply.
One key mission is a radio science campaign to study Mars’ interior, according to rover scientists. The rover’s high-gain antenna will track Earth and scientists will measure the Doppler shift in the radio signal as Mars wobbles. This will give some information about Mars’ core, said Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator on the rover mission and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. The wobble can indicate how much of the core is melted — the way a raw egg wobbles vs. the tight spin of a hardboiled one.
Opportunity will also use its alpha particle X-ray spectrometer to look at a rocky outcropping called Saddleback, determining what it’s made of, and it will also stare at the floor of Endeavour Crater, checking for wind-caused changes, Arvidson said.
Its emission spectrometer no longer works, and its Moessbauer spectrometer, which identifies minerals containing iron, is almost out of cobalt-57 juice, so some of these measurements will take a lot longer than they would with a younger rover.
But Opportunity — and its twin, Spirit, before it fell silent two years ago — have already far surpassed scientists’ greatest expectations. Watch some of the rover team discuss their findings in the video below.