Arm of Opportunity – Exploring Mars By Rover
Next in our series on robotic arms for every mission, we look at the arm of the Opportunity rover.
Twin robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in early 2004, with planned 90-day missions to explore and gather data from different areas of the planet’s surface. Both rovers exceeded their expected lifetimes, with Opportunity remaining operational for nearly 15 years, Spirit for nearly 6.
Spirit sent its final communication to Earth in 2010, after becoming stuck in Martian sand. Opportunity’s final communication was sent in 2019, following a debilitating global dust storm in 2018.
What Was Opportunity’s Mission?
Robotic rover missions to Mars examine evidence of past water activity on the planet’s surface. Moving water can leave traces of itself in rock formations. These traces provide clues to the atmospheric history of the landscape.
Like its twin geologist Spirit, Opportunity searched for signs of past water activity on the rocky surface of Mars. Over the course of its exploratory journey, covering 28 miles, Opportunity found gypsum and grey hematite, minerals indicative of past water presence and movement – as well as clay minerals suggestive of ancient microbial life.
Today’s cold, thin Martian atmosphere may be inhospitable to any form of life, but the presence of minerals on Mars’ surface terrain points to a wetter past, where microbial life could have existed.
Functions Of The Robotic Arm
Opportunity’s robotic arm featured a hand-like turret equipped with instruments designed to inspect and analyze the Martian surface. Similar to a human arm – with a shoulder, elbow, and wrist – the robotic arm was built with joints to enable movement in any direction. The arm’s maneuverability allowed the rover to examine rocks and soil up close.
Mounted to the turret, the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) ground up rocky surface samples, to expose their interiors for analysis. Another instrument on the turret, the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), used radiation to analyze the chemical makeup of Martian terrain.
Also attached to the arm, the Mössbauer Spectrometer (MB) identified the mineral composition of the iron-rich rocks and soil that give Mars its red color.
Cameras mounted to the rover’s mast captured human-height-level views of the landscape, along with magnified views of the terrain. Computer systems aboard the rover stored these images for later transmission to Earth.
Past Rovers Point To The Future Of Space Robotics
Rovers like Opportunity and Spirit laid the groundwork for more advanced missions, like the one now underway by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). In partnership with JPL, Motiv Space Systems built the robotic arm in use on Perseverance today. Motiv’s arm brings greater strength and capability to Perseverance than ever seen before on a rover.
Have a look around our site to learn more about the innovations Motiv brings to space robotics including the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover.