By Hannah Prensky, Illustration by Audrey Oh
The launching of the Sputnik satellite. The race for space. Laika, the first traveler into the Cosmos. Shepard bringing the American flag into orbit. Since the 1950s, the Cold War propelled generations of astronauts and astronomers to delve deeper into the dark unknown, using rockets fueled by the desire to go further. In the years following Sputnik, the American space agency, NASA, aligned a series of missions like a syzygy of planets in space. During the sixty years since the first venture into the final frontier, human knowledge of space has expanded like the universe during the Big Bang. Now, not only are we sending satellites to look deeper into space; we are sending robots to physically explore other planets.
When the Opportunity rover took off for Mars in 2003, the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA aimed to answer some of mankind’s most profound questions. It touched down on the Martian surface with the primary mission of determining whether Mars is, was, or ever will be suitable for life. Opportunity was primarily searching for recoverable water, which is the main indicator of a planet’s potential to sustain life. Water manifests in geological samples that could have been formed from minerals deposited in water-related events, including precipitation, erosion, and sedimentary cementation. Life, as we know it, depends on liquid water for survival; thus, finding water on Mars would be a vital step toward the groundbreaking discovery of life on the Red Planet.
Opportunity explored craters, hills, and valleys for an astounding fourteen years. The rover unearthed indications of water through environmental, chemical, and mineralogical analyses of the Red Planet. One piece of evidence supporting the hypothesis that water once saturated Mars arose in the form of small, evenly distributed spherules of the mineral, hematite, on a Martian plain. On Earth, hematite is often formed in areas where hot springs or pools of water flow, which lead scientists to believe the hematite spherules on Mars remained from ancient sources of water. Data and images from Opportunity confirmed that a large body of water once covered the plain. Scientists at NASA are now using clues like these to search for ancient life.
On February 13, 2019, NASA declared the Opportunity Mars rover obsolete after almost eight months of silence following a raging sand storm on the surface of the Red Planet. The Martian sand blocked Opportunity’s solar panels, hindering its ability to generate power. NASA lost communications with Opportunity on June 10th, 2018, but scientists remained hopeful that they would regain a signal after the storm subsided in the autumn. Unfortunately, after sending thousands of recovery commands with no response from the record-breaking rover, NASA officially declared the completion of the Opportunity mission in February. The final transmission sent to Opportunity before the mission ended was the song, “I’ll be Seeing You,” by Billie Holiday, delivered to Mars’s Perseverance Valley.
Although Opportunity was initially launched from Earth for a planned 90-day mission, it defied all odds and continued to explore for a decade and a half. Since the advent of galactic expeditions in the Cold War era, discoveries and breakthroughs have occurred at a rate few in the 1950s would have thought possible. Despite having sent satellites, animals, humans, and rovers into space, our space achievements are far from over. The hope and progress Opportunity provided to space exploration expanded our curiosity, and offered a unique perspective on humanity’s place in the universe. But more importantly, Opportunity gave us further insight into some of mankind’s most profound questions: What is the nature of life in the universe and does it exist elsewhere? Are we and our planet unique?
Humankind has never been satisfied with what we already know. The need to discover more is ever-present. Over time, civilizations have traveled to different colonies, countries, and now, planets. While helping to revive our curiosity for celestial enterprises, projects like the Opportunity rover demonstrate the elegance and elusiveness of the evolving universe. We have no final answers to our age-old questions; the search continues.