NASA JPL Scientist Explains How Mars Opportunity Rover Survived For Almost 15 Years

Recent reports have suggested that NASA’s Opportunity rover’s days might be numbered, as a massive dust storm has enveloped much of Mars, with the craft seemingly having gone dark last Sunday and not having made contact with the space agency since then. As the dust storm continues to rage and Opportunity remains silent, many NASA officials are concerned that the end of Opportunity’s era is nearing, but as a new interview suggests, it’s been a miracle of sorts that the rover has survived almost 15 years on the Red Planet.

In an interview with Mashable published on Saturday, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientist Bill Nelson, who heads Opportunity’s engineering team, explained that there’s a good chance the rover would be “in trouble” if it goes completely dead, as it seemingly did on June 8 when NASA announced that a “dark, perpetual night” has set in over Mars’ Perseverance Valley, where Opportunity is currently located. But given how Opportunity has survived for close to 15 years on the Martian surface despite only being given a life expectancy of 90 days, Nelson told Mashable that he’s “fairly optimistic” about the 400-pound craft’s fate.

“I’m hopeful that we may be able to recover,” Nelson said.

According to Mashable, NASA had low expectations for the Opportunity rover, not because of the cold temperatures on the Martian surface or the possibility that it might be involved in a freak accident and “drive into a steep ditch.” The publication noted that NASA officials thought that Opportunity would be deprived of light and power due to the buildup of thick Martian dust on the robot’s solar panels.

Looking back on this close to 15 years later, Nelson said that the dust buildup wasn’t as bad as Opportunity team members had thought, and Martian winds appear to have mitigated the situation by blowing off most of the dust. Furthermore, Nelson added that luck played a part in things, as Opportunity hadn’t been affected by previous global and regional dust storms.

“We’ve been lucky that winds or dust devils have come and blown off the [solar] arrays. The wind blows off the bulk of the dust.”

As previously reported by the Inquisitr, Opportunity had gone through its share of close calls since it first landed on Mars, including a 2007 dust storm that had covered all of the Red Planet. JPL scientist Nelson, however, focused on an event that took place in 2003, soon after Opportunity was launched to Mars. He told Mashable that about one-fourth of the planet was also affected by a major dust storm at that time, and that made it even more important for Opportunity’s parachutes to deploy at the perfect time, on account of the atmosphere retaining more heat. Additionally, this was a situation where NASA wouldn’t have received any signals from the rover unless it had actually landed.

“The mission was either made or destroyed before we heard the first word of it hitting the atmosphere. That was scary. The sense of tension was palpable. People were on pins and needles.”

Given how NASA’s Spirit rover died in 2010 after getting stuck in the sand and not receiving enough sun to allow the arrays to generate energy, Nelson stressed that luck was one of the main reasons why Spirit “froze to death” eight years ago, and why the Opportunity rover has survived since 2003. He added that both rovers, Opportunity, in particular, were built to be as “robust and perfect as possible,” with special care extended toward the motors, which operate several of the craft’s features, including its wheels and mast camera.

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