The Continuing Legacy of the Rovers that Could

NASA's rovers continue to inspire the imagination. As part of the North Carolina Science Festival, we reflect on the impact of their explorations.

April 12, 2019 

What NASA's rovers gave us

NASA's record-breaking Opportunity and Spirit rovers may be gone but their legacy seems assured. And it’s not just because of the science the robot-rovers accomplished. There’s a chance the little machines provided some life changing inspiration to a new generation, much like the Apollo moon-landing missions 50 years ago.

“That little robot is a testament to our human ingenuity and hints at the future of planetary exploration,” said Jonathan Frederick, director of the North Carolina Science Festival. “When kids see that we can build robots that travel to other planets to explore their surfaces and send back pictures and information and make incredible discoveries, that’s really cool. It also helps that the robots are cute, too!”

Opportunity and Spirit

NASA declared Opportunity dead in February after an epic 15 year run. Opportunity kept rolling along until last June, when a mammoth dust storm and prevented sunlight from reaching the rover’s solar panels. Unable to charge its batteries, Opportunity’s last communication was in June, 2018. Spirit became bogged down in soft Martian soil in 2010. Even stuck in one spot, it continued doing science until it finally gave out. The spacecraft landed a few weeks apart and in different areas of the Red Planet, but they shared the same goal: to hunt for signs of long-ago liquid water and thus help scientists to better understand the planet’s evolution and potential to host life. The six-wheeled rovers carried a variety of cameras and instruments. Spirit covered about 4.8 miles while Opportunity travelled a marathon-ish 28.06 miles. Together, they revealed secrets about the planet’s past (evidence of water) and whether it could have supported life (possibly).

"These rovers have transformed the way humanity looks at Mars," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the scientific principal investigator of Spirit and Opportunity's Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. “They were intended to be robotic field geologists and in doing so they’ve made Mars part of our neighborhood.”

And there’s already some proof of that life-changing inspiration. Deputy project scientist Abigail Fraeman was a 16-year-old student when Opportunity landed on Mars and was inside mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of an outreach program. Inspired, Fraeman went on to become a planetary scientist, joined NASA's JPL in Pasadena, California, and ended up working on the Opportunity project.

"It gives you an idea just how long this mission has lasted," Fraeman said, smiling. “It's really a testament to how well the mission was designed and how careful the team was in operating the vehicle."

"My fondest hope for that aspect of our mission is that there were some kids — 6, 7, 8 years old — watching" the Spirit and Opportunity landing events back in 2004, Squyres said. "And they see us on TV jumping up and down like we just won the Super Bowl. We have a rover on Mars! And they think, 'Wow! That's really cool! But I bet I can do better.'"

To learn more about the North Carolina Science Festival, visit the official website. 

—Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.