Far from home, NASA's Opportunity may be dying

Far from home, NASA’s Opportunity may be dying | OPINION

Imagine being all alone, in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places imaginable.

For almost 15 years, this has been the life of the Mars rover, Opportunity.

But now, some 225 million kilometres from home, Opportunity may be dying.

We’ve long been curious about Mars, one of our closest neighbours.

Since the 1960s, there have been attempts to send machines to find out more about the red planet, and to try and answer the question of whether there is, or has ever been, life on Mars.

Opportunity is one in a series of rovers that have been sent to Mars with the aim of characterising different rocks and minerals, and to give clues as to the geological processes that have taken place there.

Since its landing in 2004, Opportunity has sent home hundreds of thousands of photographs from the surface of the red planet.

But it’s now been three months since Opportunity has been heard from, and NASA may be preparing to declare the rover dead.

The problem arose in June this year, when a massive dust storm caused the rover to go to sleep.

This storm sent so much dust into the atmosphere that it’s caused areas of the planet to be completely blanketed in darkness.

Unlike its newer cousin, Curiosity, Opportunity is solar-powered, and the lack of light means it’s been unable to recharge its batteries.

Scientists and engineers have been hoping that, as the dust disperses, Opportunity will be able to recharge and wake up – but three months on this still hasn’t happened.

It’s actually quite amazing that Opportunity has lasted as long as it has.

It was originally planned that Opportunity, and its twin, Spirit, would be part of a 90-day mission on Mars.

Spirit also lasted longer than the original 90 days, but last communicated in 2010.

So far, Opportunity has outlived its planned lifespan by more than 14 years – a massive feat of durability, and of engineering, considering the conditions in which it has been operating.

This isn’t the first time that Opportunity has found itself in trouble.

In 2005, the rover managed to become stuck in a sand dune, but was extracted after about six weeks of careful manoeuvring.

Many people are not ready to give up on Opportunity just yet.

NASA continues to send Opportunity messages and even plays it songs in the hope that, any day now, the rover might just wake up.

Dr Mary McMillan is an Associate Lecturer at the University of New England’s School of Science & Technology.