Good Night Oppy

Rover Stand-In at the Smithsonian

Good Night Oppy is the title of Amazon’s new documentary about the twin Mars rovers, Spirit, and Opportunity that landed in 2004. Warrantied for only ninety Sols, both rovers “lived” years beyond all expectations, with Opportunity functioning until 2018. It was also the daily signoff message to the rover, from NASA’s control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. To conserve power, the robots had to shut down during the cold Martian nights and in the morning, just like human astronauts before them they were greeted with a wakeup song. Although twins, Spirit was always the older of the two siblings. Throughout mission workup, Spirit was always first during each development phase and the lessons learned from it, were then applied to Opportunity. Spirit launched first, followed in a few weeks by Opportunity. Both rovers landed successfully on opposite sides of Mars and began their 90-day missions.

The original ninety-day warranty came from the expectation that Martian dust buildup would degrade and then render the rover’s solar panel’s ineffective over time. Fortunately, the phenomenon of Martian dust devils kept the solar panels clean, giving the rovers a chance for unexpected longevity. Both rovers performed admirably, but like everything else, eventually they died. Spirit was the first to go. It had always been dealt the tougher hand to play, landing further north and closer to the pole of the two. It had to deal with harsher and colder weather than Opportunity met, which landed close to the equator. By the time Spirit passed, one of its six wheels had jammed, forcing it to only drive in reverse, dragging the broken appendage. After one cold night, it never woke up, but Opportunity kept going.

The show unabashedly anthropomorphizes these bots, and it is not hard to do that in an era of R2-D2 and Wall-E, but it is the reaction of the JPL scientists and engineers to these machines that lead us down that path. The movie covers decades of work, from initial design to the ending of the program. Only a handful of individuals spanned this period. We see young engineers grow old and aspiring high school students mature and then eventually join the program. Towards the end, Oppy was experiencing two common signs of old age, arthritis, and memory loss. It had to drive with its camera arm fully extended all the time, for fear of one of the arm’s gimbals seizing up. Also, every night its memory had to be downloaded back to earth and then in the morning reloaded. Gimbals be damned, one of the last things that Opportunity accomplished is taking a selfie. Not a bad movie, but then it was made by Amblin.

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