The Lifetime of an Opportunity

Opportunity, also known as MER-B (Mars Exploration Rover –B) had its mission declared as complete by NASA on February 13th. Here we take a look at some of its remarkable achievements.

As part of the Mars Exploration Program, Opportunity was launched in July 2003 towards Mars. Originally planned to host only a 92 day mission, Opportunity finally ceased sending scientific data in June 2018 – surviving nearly 60 times its original mission length. Together with Spirit, Opportunity’s twin sister rover, Opportunity was equipped with several cameras and an arm with instruments geared towards analysis of rocks and soils and it is the data which was captured by these instruments - and the amazing journey of the plucky rover - that have captured the attention of scientists and the public alike in the past 15 years.

A composite image from many 'selfies' taken by Opportunity to show the full rover on Mars.

Although launching and reaching Mars second to Spirit, Opportunity would not be without its (more than) fair share of firsts. From topping the leader board in distance travelled on mars (and the moon) at 28 miles to climbing the steepest incline of any rover on mars (32°) the rover has plenty of plaudits – and all this whilst sending valuable scientific data back to Earth.

Opportunity has been key to determining if water once existed on mars. NASA announced in 2004 that Opportunity “landed in an area of Mars where liquid water once drenched the surface". This statement could be made based on the analysis of rocks and minerals carried out by Opportunity – the discovery of hematites underpinning this. Key images captured show grains where fluid may once have flown and eroded rocks or spherical like granules hypothesised to have been ‘polished’ by flowing water.

Small smooth rocks found by Opportunity, dubbed 'blueberries', suggesting historical presence of liquid water.

But Opportunity has not always had it easy. It is testament to the engineers and scientists who have spent thousands of hours working on opportunity that it lasted so long; life on the barren red rocky Mars is challenging, at best. From extreme temperature swings (temperatures on mars range from near freezing to -100°C) to devastating dust storms, the rover had to survive it all.

To do so, Opportunity was equipped with some clever techniques and engineering. Radioisotope heaters were situated in Opportunity’s belly, keeping the core electronics warm and alive. The rover could enter a hibernation state during dust storms – and quite literally wait for it all to pass over. Often, this meant a painstaking wait for scientists back on Earth, hoping the rover’s solar panels would be clear enough to continue the ever-lengthening mission.

Image taken by Opportunity showing streaks on its Solar Panels where dust has been fallen off due to the steep incline the rover overcomes.

The mission has not been without mishaps, losing steering in one front wheel in 2005 – later losing steering on the other wheel in 2017. It was also believed in 2005 that the rover was stuck for good in a sand trap, before it escaped some months later and in 2015, the rovers internal flash memory failed. Despite all this, the Opportunity continued on.

That is, until 2018. It appears to be a global dust storm which has, sadly, ended Opportunity’s mission on Mars. The rover entered hibernation on June 12, 2018 and after over a thousand attempts to re-establish communications, NASA has now determined the mission to be complete. It is unknown if the rover has suffered catastrophic failure or if dust still remains covering its solar panels.

The life of Opportunity, however, will be remembered as one of the most successful Mars missions, and it can still be used to help serve us today – as an allegory.

In life, one should not look for a lifetime of missed opportunities but rather aim for a lifetime like Opportunity’s – exceed expectations; don’t let the worst of adversarial conditions stop you; always continue to do something meaningful.

Who knows – if you follow the path of Opportunity maybe one day you will literally be following its tracks on Mars…

For more information on Opportunity, see

All images Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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