In 2003, NASA launched an ambitious mission to chart the land no human has ever set foot on, till date – our red twin, Mars. Launched alongside her twin Spirit, the Mars Exploration Rover-B, named Opportunity, touched down on the planet on January 2004, with a planned 90 days of activity. Oppy ended up working for more than 14 years, and as NASA shut finally gave up on their beloved bot in 2019, humanity had found itself a little teary-eyed.
For a species who has an entire genre of literature and countless movies dedicated to the fear of the robot overlord, humans possess an amazing capability to pack-bond with anything that has legs and moves. From stories of people treating their Roombas as pets to the intense protectiveness people are developing over their working bot companions, humans have shown an empathy towards robots that have undercut the fear of harsh critics.
The latest example of this astounding human capability to love has all the makings of a Hollywood romance – a long distance relationship, some impossible odds, a hero that breaks all expectations, and a heartbreak that will leave the entire theatre a sobbing mess. Opportunity was indeed an extraordinary rover, and stands a testament to the scientific community’s knowledge and skills. The fact that the bot remained functional for a lifespan 55 times longer than its expected life is not just pure luck – it was the efforts of an entire team on ground that made sure the bot survived the harsh, unexplored environment. Over the course of its productive career the rover discovered the first meteorite found on another planet, explored the Victoria crater, and provided strong data suggesting that Mars did in fact have flowing water once upon a time.
The end of Oppy’s long run came not because of any fault in the machinery, but due to planetary factors. As a dust storm enveloped Mars in June 2018, the solar-powered rover was unable to communicate with Earth. The communications didn’t resume even in October, which suggested that the bot was unable to power up or contact Earth. The NASA team hoped that Oppy’s solar panels would clear up soon, as had happened before, but the rover simply didn’t reply. The communication efforts were handed over to Canberra Deep Space Communications in Australia, and on 13th February, NASA declared Opportunity’s mission as an end.
Journalist Jacob Margolis translated Opportunity’s last message, a scientific output about the atmosphere’s opacity and its low battery power and stated the message to be ‘My batter is low, and it’s getting dark.’ The very humane statement struck a deep chord with the public, and an outpouring of grief and
gratefulness followed as everybody bade the rover goodbye.
Some may find the idea of grieving for a distant bot slightly ridiculous, but the collective outpouring is much more symbolic of just people being sentimental. Opportunity was a giant leap in our cosmic exploration, and provided us data of the kind that will fuel countless future endeavours. The rover was a working symbol and representative of human’s innate desire and curiosity to know the universe, and is a shining example that despite all the mess we make, humanity is in fact capable of boundless love.