The Best Opportunity You’ll Ever Have

In many ways, the 25th of January 2014 was a normal Saturday. People going about their business, the sun slowly trudging across the barely visible sky.

Sports stars Xavi and Robinho were celebrating birthdays. But a rather more remarkable birthday was being celebrated across the pond, specifically in Pasadena, California, where the engineers of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) commemorated the 10th anniversary of Opportunity’s landing on Mars.

This trolley-sized robot, built at a cost of $400 million (£250 million), was originally designed to last for around 90 days – as was its twin, Spirit. 225 million kilometres from home, the rovers have made many discoveries, including clear evidence that there was once water on the Red Planet.

On that note, just think about that operational lifespan – designed to work for 90 days, but has so far managed 10 years! How many things can you think of that have lasted for that much time above and beyond what, for example, the warranty covers (which I suppose you could think of as the time that everything is expected to work perfectly).

Mars isn’t exactly the best of environments for rovers, either. Even Curiosity, which only arrived in 2012, has taken

Mars
Could Mars be home to some kind of life? (Credit: latestastronomy)

some damage to its wheels. By the time that Spirit died, one wheel was jammed, it was suffering from a number of computer errors, and it was operating at 30% power, owing to a build-up of dust on its solar panels. Opportunity has also experienced damage, with grinder, instrument arm, and infrared sensor affected.

Which makes it all the more impressive that it has lasted this long. Unfortunately, budget constraints mean that the time may soon come that Opportunity will have to be switched off, ready to join its twin in becoming a relic from the past, rather than a hero of the present. Hopefully (from my point of view at least) some excuse, sorry, reason, can be found to keep it operating, perhaps as a back up to its younger brother. With one rover, NASA can explore a small part of the planet; with two, it can investigate so much more.

After all this time, it would be a great shame that the death of Opportunity would not come from the dust and frigid temperatures of Mars, but from its creators and operators, JPL. Obviously, if the money isn’t there, then some hard truths need to be faced and priorities taken (even NASA isn’t immune to America’s economic situation); a base on the moon may well be a more worthwhile venture. But we shouldn’t just forget about our current missions, especially just as Mars is starting to attract increasing interest from the public.

So, with Opportunity possibly being on its way out, what are the alternatives? Well, Curiosity is still going strong, continuing to make discoveries and news headlines as it sends its data back to Earth, via the largely unknown Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In turn, MRO is looking for the remains of the Mars Polar Lander and Beagle 2 missions, both of which failed to survive landing on the surface (Beagle 2 may not have made it that far).

Future missions include the continuation of the ExoMars program, a joint mission between the European (ESA) and Russian (Roscosmos) space agencies, to start the ball rolling for a sample return mission in the next decade. NASA also plans to send another rover in 2020, with similar aims to Curiosity, and InSight, a 2016 mission to investigate certain geological processes involved in planetary formation.

On the human side, a number of organisations are getting involved. First, there are the Russians/Europeans, who recently completed Mars-500, a 520-day simulation of a manned mission to Mars, to study the psychological effects of being enclosed in such a small space with the same 5 other people, almost completely cut off from Earth. 4 crew members had difficulty sleeping, while some avoided both their fellow crew and necessary exercise, hiding away from the others.

Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp has taken a different approach – he plans to send normal, everyday people to the Red Planet, with certain fitness and psychological requirements. Stage one of Mars One crew selection has already taken place, with 1058 candidates from over 200,000 interested people selected, so it is too late for those thinking of making the trip – though it might not feel so bad when considering that those who do travel won’t be coming back!

A recent run on crowdfunding site Indiegogo produced a final total of just over $300,000, around 75% of the $400,000 target. But to really get the money flowing, Mars One needs to capture the imagination of the public – which, again, is where Lansdorp comes in. He plans quite possibly the greatest reality show ever, based onboard the mission – an interplanetary Big Brother, if you will (but hopefully without the evictions, which could prove…messy).

With Mars One set to launch its first manned mission in 2024, and with others getting involved, the space industry is not forgetting about Mars. Far from it. And maybe, just maybe, the astronauts flying to our neighbour will be able to find the rovers, and fix them, or at least put them into safe storage for future transportation back home. 2025 may bring an event even more momentous than Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon – the first person on Mars. But one question remains:

What the heck are they going to say?

All pictures from Flickr, used under the Creative Commons license found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

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