Wednesday, February 13, 2019

RIP Opportunity Rover

Photo of the Mars Opportunity rover, found on the
Opportunity/Spirit Rover's Twitter page.

Credit for photos in this post:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University.

Mars Rover Opportunity Is Dead After Record-Breaking 15 Years on Red Planet

"Opportunity roamed the Martian surface for nearly a decade and a half, covering more than a marathon's worth of ground and finding conclusive evidence that the Red Planet hosted large bodies of liquid water in the ancient past. The golf-cart-size rover and its twin, Spirit, also helped bring Mars down to Earth, in the minds of scientists and laypeople alike.

Spirit and Opportunity 'have made Mars a familiar place,' Opportunity project manager John Callas, of JPL, told last year, a few months after the dust storm flared up. 'When we say, 'our world,' we're no longer just talking about the Earth. We have to include parts of Mars as well.'"

- Excerpt from's obituary for NASA's Opportunity Rover (linked-to above) which fell silent in June of last year and, alas, never recovered. Here's NASA's announcement.

An early Opportunity Pan-cam shot of Meridiani Planum.
(Click-on images to enlarge.)

"The NASA Rover science team mission was to find evidence of water on Mars. They found it and their proofs, images and scientific analysis were superb and they seemed to have nailed it at 100%.Their mission was not to say, 'Oh, this sort of looks like a fossil, whadidja think?' That's what I am saying here. They can't say that. I notice now that they have found water, their senior scientists are relaxinga bit and will say 'Wouldn't this be a good place to look for fossils? Look how well everything is preserved.'To make a scientifically valuable decision about life on Mars you would have to go there with a gas analysis spectrometer and do counts and ratios for isotope carbon-12 and 13 and look for amino acids and other distinctive biological signatures. Maybe they are waiting for a mission with that kind of equipment or a mission that will return some sample soil and rocks. In any case I congratulate NASA MER team and the American people on their great contribution to planetary science."

- Canadian, Michael Davidson, from his 2004 article: Mars Fossils, Pseudofossils or Problematica? (via Posthuman Blues).

 "I previously wrote that JPL was developing an anything-but-scientific immunity to the unexpected. Apparently rocks are fair game -- but only if they resemble terrestrial rocks. Rocks with "varnished" surfaces or geometric cavities must be avoided -- perhaps because they look just a bit too organic, like chunks of bone or petrified wood where such things have no business being. Oddly colored snail-shapes are studiously avoided because, in the words of one JPL scientist, taking a close look would "waste precious machine time." He failed to note that the anomaly in question was directly in front of the Opportunity rover, starkly unavoidable. In the scheme of the rover's mission, taking a closer look would have been virtually effortless. Instead, Opportunity was (presumably) steered directly over the strange formation; JPL has taken to literally running over what it can't explain, like a monster truck imperviously crushing a line-up of decrepit cars.

- Mac Tonnies from a February 7, 2004 Posthuman Blues post. Inset right is an Opportunity shot of Erebus Crater found here. Other Posthuman Blues posts regarding Opportunity can be found here, and here.


Time was when any new data from Mars spawned a whole lot of controversy, and Mac was generally on-board with that. Nothing fell under his radar, so to speak, and, well, we all had a lot of fun hypothesizing about the latest Martian "find." But, those were the good old days. Nowadays, I'm not sure if anybody cares... although I noted there were plenty of nostalgic articles popping up yesterday regarding the passing of the Opportunity rover. Here's a video (via the Washington Post).

Remember Opportunity's great discovery: the Martian "Blueberries"? Well, they weren't blue, actually... it was just NASA's use of false coloration. As for the name, well it was an effective way of both popularizing them and trivializing them. There were those, however, who thought the odd spherules (inset right) were a sign of water and even life. As it happens, similar small, round concretions exist on earth, too. See this 2018 article.

Anyway, Mac wasn't altogether jaded and truculent when it came to NASA/JPL's press releases. Posted on Posthuman Blues a few days earlier in February of 2004 (re: his previous quote) was this:

"This panorama just might qualify as my favorite image ever returned from the surface of Mars. At 9 MB, it's big, with an epic quality that's hard to put into words. In the foreground you can see several "crop circles" where the lander's airbags disturbed the surface as it rolled down the incline; it's amusing to think that we're the aliens here, modifying the landscape in ways that would mystify any native onlookers. The protruding bedrock looks suggestively like the ruined vertebrae of some impossible creature, compacted and exhumed by wind. If you look at this image long enough -- and there's plenty to see and contemplate -- you get a vertiginous sense of actually being there that surpasses any virtual reality interface I have yet to sample. This small slice of Mars is redolent with history, infused with a timelessness and mystery that even Earth's natural wonders fail to evoke. In a word: Wow."

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