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Good Night Oppy: The Unexpected Success of a Robot

by Coffee Table Science

Image Credit: Good Night Oppy

Everyone loves a good underdog, but rarely is this title associated with two robots that cost over $1.08 billion dollars. In 2004, however, citizens and science-lovers alike were given the chance to cheer: Spirit and Opportunity, the two twin rovers that NASA sent to explore Mars, had touched down on Earth’s red sister-planet and were successfully sending signals back to us.

Perhaps we didn’t know – at least, not at the time – just how harrowing of a journey this was for the two WALL-E-esque robots that traveled the 56 million mile (90 million kilometer) distance through the cold, harsh, and unpredictable conditions of space and survived the 12,000 mph (19,000 km/hour) penetration into the Martian atmosphere.

With recent release of the documentary Good Night Oppy (now playing in theatres), we can travel back in time and through space with the rovers and the masterful minds at NASA that brought the rovers to life, and see for ourselves all that these two adventurous and inspirational machines overcame before laying to rest on the soils of Mars.  

The Mission: An Inside Perspective

Good Night Oppy follows the construction, launch, touchdown, and runtime of Spirit and Opportunity (lovingly referred to as “Oppy”) during NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission. Based on the documentary’s testimonials from key figures like mission manager Steve Squyres, and Kobie Boykins, who designed the solar arrays used to power the rovers  (to name just a few), you can’t help but share their anguish, pride, doubt, relief, and elation throughout the mission. 

Many of these figures described their feelings for the robots as being akin to a parent’s feelings surrounding their kids: they raised Spirit and Opportunity to the best of their ability, and when the time came, they sent these two progenies off to achieve great things of their own

Image Credit: Good Night Oppy

Based on the testimonials featured in the documentary, it was a wondrous surprise that the rovers were able to land on the red planet in the first place. It seemed just as likely that the billion-dollar mission would result in 800 pounds of space junk, floating aimlessly through space or meeting a similarly fruitless fate, given all of the risks associated with the mission.

The Science: What Were We Seeking?

The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission’s success criteria was two-fold: one, the rovers had to arrive on the surface of Mars without breaking; and two, to find and report back evidence that there was once neutral water on the planet, which is, as far as we know, a necessary precursor to the existence of life at some point in the planet’s geological history. 

To do this, the rovers came equipped with sensors and drivetrains that allowed them to safely navigate the rocky terrain; photovoltaic arrays that allowed them to recharge using energy from the sun; and tools and spectrometers that allowed them to report the chemical composition of the rocks and soil around them. Specifically, the rovers were looking for Grey Hematite, which is a form of rust that usually requires water to form here on Earth.

The Miracle: Exceeding Expectations

GIF credit: Good Night Oppy

The most astonishing feat of these rovers, however, may be their resilience. Their mission was meant to last only 90 sols (the Mars-equivalent of a day), at which point it was expected that dust cumulation on their solar panels would prevent them from recharging. 

Unexpected wind storms on Mars aided them, however, by blowing the dust off the solar panels. Suddenly the 90-sol timeframe began to expand into a mission that lasted not only months, but years, allowing the rovers to travel further than any of the mission leaders expected. 

Throughout the film, we experience the underdogs – the rovers that weren’t sure to complete even the humblest of their immense tasks – face heroes’ journeys: through unexpected solar flare-ups, treacherous terrain, broken wheels, and brutal Martian winters. 

We get to experience them age as their parts become weathered and worn. And finally, we witness them reach their final resting points on the mysterious planet Mars. Spirit endured 2,208 sols (6 Earth years). Oppy endured 5,352 sols (15 Earth years).

These underdogs not only rose up to their occasion; they triumphed several times over. And as for finding signs of water on Mars goes? You’ll have to look that up on your own – or watch the documentary. I promise you, it’s an inspiring tale.


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