Podcaster:  Ken Brandt

Title: The 16th Anniversary of Opportunity’s Arrival on Mars

Organisation: Robeson Planetarium and Science Center in Lumberton, NC, USA

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Description: This podcast celebrates the 16th year anniversary of the landing of Opportunity on Mars

Bio: Ken Brandt is a master educator, presenter and science enthusiast. I see a minimum of 3,000 students and teachers per annum, and I am the only one who presents in the planetarium. I also facilitate student learning in our science center. I’m also an adjunct Astronomy Lecturer, and a full time believer in the methods of science.

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Hi, I’m Ken Brandt, and I direct the Robeson Planetarium and Science Center, in Lumberton, North Carolina, USA. I am also a volunteer for the Jet Propulsion Lab’s Solar System Ambassadors program. We are an international network of over 600 unpaid emissaries for the exploration of the solar system. You can find us at outreach education events all over the world.

This podcast celebrates the 16th year anniversary of the landing of Opportunity on Mars. I still remember the night she landed vividly. After launch in July 0f 2003, the big night finally came. I was standing at the planetarium’s console, watching the control room at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, eating peanuts, and listening as the landing milestones were called out: “parachute deployed”, “airbags inflated”, “we’re bouncing around on Mars!” Then those first images came down from the rover’s front hazcams: OUTCROP! Layers of what later turned out to be salty, lake-deposited sediments on Mars. While orbiting spacecraft had provided ample evidence for water erosion, this was the first definitive demonstration of sediments deposited by liquid water on Mars. As we have seen from the rovers Spirit and Curiosity, it is not the last.

The prime directive for that era of Mars exploration was “find the water”. Find the water? The evidence was everywhere Opportunity travelled! From the hematite ‘blueberry’ concretions, to the crosscutting layers in the rock, to sulfate salts; Opportunity’s data describes a much wetter Martian past. Of course, we want to know what happened to Mars that caused its liquid water to dry up, evaporate, or freeze. The MAVEN spacecraft is working right now in orbit around Mars, learning more about the atmosphere and magnetic fields present on Mars now.

One thing that makes me proud to be an American is that a small percentage (0.05%) of my tax money goes to fund NASA, and its many missions of exploration and discovery. One of the most successful of these is the Mars rover Opportunity.

How far has she traveled? Opportunity had ‘run’ a marathon, and then some; total odometry as of Sol 5111, is 28.06 miles. A “sol” is the Martian equivalent of an Earth day, approximately 24 hours and 38 minutes. The original engineering optimal performance standards for the mission: 90 sols. Opportunity has driven further than any other vehicle on any extraterrestrial surface. Right now, she is on the rim of Endeavor crater, exploring sedimentary rocks formed

from clay deposition. Clay is usually formed in lake environments, with water at a neutral pH-like your drinking water. Of course, the big question still eludes us: did water flowing on Mars give rise to life, like Earth? Everywhere there is liquid water on Earth; something alive is there too.

Then, the dust storm happened. The storm lasted about a month and a half. The rover didn’t, as dust covered up the solar panels and prevented Opportunity from getting power from the Sun. The batteries drained, and she froze to death on Mars.

Just because it’s a robot doesn’t mean no people are involved. Every day, scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and hundreds of other people were actively working on this project.

Opportunity joins a long, proud tradition of the Jet Propulsion Lab’s robotic explorers that have far exceeded their engineering warranties; in her case, working 51 times longer than her original 90-sol warranty. She joins the likes of the Voyagers, Vikings, and Cassini, among many others that have far exceeded their prime missions in the pursuit of knowledge in our solar system. So happy 16th anniversary, Opportunity!

End of podcast:

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