Opportunity Mars Rover goes to its last rest after extraordinary 14-year mission

Opportunity, one of two rovers sent to Mars in 2004, is officially offline for good, NASA and JPL officials announced today at a special press conference. “I declare the Opportunity mission as complete, and with it the Mars Exploration ROver mission as complete,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen.

Opportunity, one of two rovers sent to Mars in 2004, is officially offline for good, NASA and JPL officials announced today at a special press conference. “I declare the Opportunity mission as complete, and with it the Mars Exploration ROver mission as complete,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen.

The cause of Opportunity’s demise was a planet-scale sandstorm that obscured its solar panels too completely, and for too long, for its onboard power supply to survive and keep even its most elementary components running. It last communicated on June 10, 2018, but could easily have lasted a few months more as its batteries ran down — a sad picture to be sure. Even a rover designed for the harsh Martian climate can’t handle being trapped under a cake of dust at -100 degrees celsius for long.

The team has been trying to reach it for months, employing a variety of increasingly desperate techniques to get the rover to at least respond; even if its memory had been wiped clean or instruments knocked out, it could be reprogrammed and refreshed to continue service if only they could set up a bit of radio rapport. But every attempt, from ordinary contact methods to “sweep and beep” ploys, was met with silence. The final transmission from mission control was last night.

Spirit and Opportunity, known together as the Mars Exploration Rovers mission, were launched individually in the summer of 2003 and touched down in January of 2004 — 15 years ago! — in different regions of the planet.

Each was equipped with a panoramic camera, a macro camera, spectrometers for identifying rocks and minerals, and a little drill for taking samples. The goal was to operate for 90 days, traveling about 40 meters each day and ultimately covering about a kilometer. Both exceeded those goals by incredible amounts.

Spirit ended up traveling about 7.7 kilometers and lasting about 7 years. But Opportunity outshone its twin, going some 45 kilometers over 14 years — well over a marathon.

And of course both rovers contributed immensely to our knowledge of the Red Planet. It was experiments by these guys that really established a past when Mars not only had water, but bio-friendly liquid water that might have supported life.

Opportunity did a lot of science but always had time for a selfie, such as this one at the edge of Erebus Crater.

It’s always sad when a hard-working craft or robot finally shuts down for good, especially when it’s one that’s been as successful as “Oppy.” The Cassini probe went out in a blaze of glory, and Kepler has quietly gone to sleep. But ultimately these platforms are instruments of science and we should celebrate their extraordinary success as well as mourn their inevitable final days.

Mars of course is not suddenly without a tenant. The Insight lander touched down last year and has been meticulously setting up its little laboratory and testing its systems. And the Mars 2020 rover is well on its way to launch. It’s a popular planet.

Perhaps some day we’ll scoop up these faithful servants and put them in a Martian museum. For now let’s look forward to the next mission.

NASA cubecraft WALL-E and EVE sign off after historic Mars flyby

A NASA mission that sent two tiny spacecraft farther out than any like them before appears to have come to an end: Cubesats MarCO-A and B (nicknamed WALL-E and EVE) are no longer communicating from their positions a million and two million miles from Earth respectively.

A NASA mission that sent two tiny spacecraft farther out than any like them before appears to have come to an end: Cubesats MarCO-A and B (nicknamed WALL-E and EVE) are no longer communicating from their positions a million and two million miles from Earth respectively.

The briefcase-sized craft rode shotgun on the Insight Mars Lander launch in May, detaching shortly after leaving orbit. Before long they had gone farther than any previous cubesat-sized craft, and after about a million kilometers EVE took a great shot of the Earth receding in its wake (if wake in space were a thing).

They were near Mars when Insight made its descent onto the Red Planet, providing backup observation and connectivity, and having done that, their mission was pretty much over. In fact, the team felt that if they made it that far it would already be a major success.

“This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us,” said the mission’s chief engineer, JPL’s Andy Klesh, in a news release. “We’ve put a stake in the ground. Future CubeSats might go even farther.”

The two craft together cost less than $20 million to make, a tiny fraction of what traditionally sized orbiters and probes cost, and of course their size makes them much easier to launch as well.

However, in the end these were experimental platforms not designed to last years — or decades, like Voyager 1 and 2. The two craft have ceased communicating with mission control, and although this was expected, the cause is still undetermined:

The mission team has several theories for why they haven’t been able to contact the pair. WALL-E has a leaky thruster. Attitude-control issues could be causing them to wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands. The brightness sensors that allow the CubeSats to stay pointed at the Sun and recharge their batteries could be another factor. The MarCOs are in orbit around the Sun and will only get farther away as February wears on. The farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth.

There’s a slim chance that when WALL-E and EVE’s orbits bring them closer to the sun, they’ll power back on and send a bit more information, and the team will be watching this summer to see if that happens. But it would just be a cherry on top of a cherry at this point.

You can learn more about the MarCO project here, and all the images the craft were able to take and send back are collected here.

Mars Rover Curiosity is switching brains so it can fix itself

When you send something to space, it’s good to have redundancy. Sometimes you want to send two whole duplicate spacecraft just in case — as was the case with Voyager — but sometimes it’s good enough to have two of critical components. Mars Rover Curiosity is no exception, and it is now in the process of switching from one main “brain” to the other so it can do digital surgery on the first.

When you send something to space, it’s good to have redundancy. Sometimes you want to send two whole duplicate spacecraft just in case — as was the case with Voyager — but sometimes it’s good enough to have two of critical components. Mars Rover Curiosity is no exception, and it is now in the process of switching from one main “brain” to the other so it can do digital surgery on the first.

Curiosity landed on Mars with two central computing systems, Side-A and Side-B (not left brain and right brain — that would invite too much silliness). They’re perfect duplicates of each other, or were — it was something of a bumpy ride, after all, and cosmic radiation may flip a bit here and there.

The team was thankful to have made these preparations when, on sol 200 in February of 2013 (we’re almost to sol 2,200 now), the Side-A computer experienced a glitch that ended up taking the whole rover offline. The solution was to swap over to Side-B, which was up and running shortly afterwards and sending diagnostic data for its twin.

Having run for several years with no issues, Side-B is now, however, having its own problems. Since September 15 it has been unable to record mission data, and it doesn’t appear to be a problem that the computer can solve itself. Fortunately, in the intervening period, Side-A has been fixed up to working condition — though it has a bit less memory than it used to, since some corrupted sectors had to be quarantined.

“We spent the last week checking out Side A and preparing it for the swap,” said Steven Lee, deputy project manager of the Curiosity program at JPL, in a mission status report. “We are operating on Side A starting today, but it could take us time to fully understand the root cause of the issue and devise workarounds for the memory on Side B. It’s certainly possible to run the mission on the Side-A computer if we really need to. But our plan is to switch back to Side B as soon as we can fix the problem to utilize its larger memory size.”

No timeline just yet for how that will happen, but the team is confident that they’ll have things back on track soon. The mission isn’t in jeopardy — but this is a good example of how a good system of redundancies can add years to the life of space hardware.

NASA’s Open Source Rover lets you build your own planetary exploration platform

Got some spare time this weekend? Why not build yourself a working rover from plans provided by NASA? The spaceniks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all the plans, code, and materials for you to peruse and use — just make sure you’ve got $2,500 and a bit of engineering know-how. This thing isn’t made out of Lincoln Logs.

Got some spare time this weekend? Why not build yourself a working rover from plans provided by NASA? The spaceniks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all the plans, code, and materials for you to peruse and use — just make sure you’ve got $2,500 and a bit of engineering know-how. This thing isn’t made out of Lincoln Logs.

The story is this: after Curiosity landed on Mars, JPL wanted to create something a little smaller and less complex that it could use for educational purposes. ROV-E, as they called this new rover, traveled with JPL staff throughout the country.

Unsurprisingly, among the many questions asked was often whether a class or group could build one of their own. The answer, unfortunately, was no: though far less expensive and complex than a real Mars rover, ROV-E was still too expensive and complex to be a class project. So JPL engineers decided to build one that wasn’t.

The result is the JPL Open Source Rover, a set of plans that mimic the key components of Curiosity but are simpler and use off the shelf components.

“I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others,” said JPL’s Tom Soderstrom in a post announcing the OSR. “We wanted to give back to the community and lower the barrier of entry by giving hands on experience to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and programmers.”

The OSR uses Curiosity-like “Rocker-Bogie” suspension, corner steering and pivoting differential, allowing movement over rough terrain, and the brain is a Raspberry Pi. You can find all the parts in the usual supply catalogs and hardware stores, but you’ll also need a set of basic tools: a bandsaw to cut metal, a drill press is probably a good idea, a soldering iron, snips and wrenches, and so on.

“In our experience, this project takes no less than 200 person-hours to build, and depending on the familiarity and skill level of those involved could be significantly more,” the project’s creators write on the GitHub page.

So basically unless you’re literally rocket scientists, expect double that. Although JPL notes that they did work with schools to adjust the building process and instructions.

There’s flexibility built into the plans, too. So you can load custom apps, connect payloads and sensors to the brain, and modify the mechanics however you’d like. It’s open source, after all. Make it your own.

“We released this rover as a base model. We hope to see the community contribute improvements and additions, and we’re really excited to see what the community will add to it,” said project manager Mik Cox. “I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others.”