How the Hell Is NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity Still Going?

Twelve years later, the Opportunity rover is still rolling around Mars. It was only supposed to last 90 days.

Mars Opportunity rover
NASA/JPL

Forgotten about the Mars Opportunity rover? Understandable. NASA’s little six-wheel buggy launched from Earth July 7, 2003. Two hundred twelve days later, it deployed a parachute, retrorockets, and a clover of airbags to drop safely onto the Red Planet. Last week, Opportunity celebrated the 12th anniversary of its successful landing on Mars. It was only supposed to work for 90 days.

Why? Opportunity draws all its power from solar panels, which generate 140 watts for a maximum of four hours per Martian day, then rechargeable lithium ion batteries for use at night. Because of the climate and geology of Mars, notable for its wild dust storms, some of which are intense enough to be seen by telescope from Earth. NASA, then, assumed Opportunity’s solar panels would be soon become covered in dust, unable to collect energy and, thus, lose contact with Earth in a matter of weeks.

What they didn’t account for was dust devils.

Since arriving on Mars, the rover has been the beneficiary of Martian whirlwinds. Like blowing dust off an old record, these have periodically cleaned Opportunity’s solar panels. Basically, NASA inadvertently hacked the Martian ecosystem. Which is possibly the coolest thing ever.

Before:

NASA/JPL

After:

NASA/JPL

Besides continuous natural Martian cleanings (seriously, the coolest), Opportunity has benefited from remote NASA software upgrades, helping to bolster its hazard detection capabilities. Still, the little guy has taken his knocks. Two instrument sensors no longer work; joints occasionally lock up. And, since last year, Opportunity’s brains, a 20 MHz CPU with 256 MB flash memory, have been prone to what NASA calls “bouts of amnesia.” With an annual running cost of $14 million, some experts have called for NASA to abandon the mission.

Yeah, sorry. Not going to sell us on ditching an outdated, quirky piece of machinery with sentimental value and consistent delivery of the good feels. That’s kind of our whole thing around here.