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NASA’s Opportunity Rover is Dead. We Asked Scientists to Write Eulogies For the Robot

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NASA Mars Opportunity Rover

In late March 2016, on its 4,332nd Martian day, the rover looked back on the tracks it made while climbing Knudsen Ridge and spotted a distant dust devil. During its drive up the hill, the rover tilted up to 32 degrees from horizontal, the steepest terrain for any rover on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

After some 15 prolific years on the Martian surface, NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover has gone silent. And after an all out effort to re-establish contact, the space agency says it’s given up hopes of ever hearing back from the rover. We talked to the NASA engineers and scientists whose lives have been touched by the Opportunity rover about their experiences and what the craft meant to them. For some researchers, the mission has encompassed their entire career. For others, the spacecraft team was like a tight-knit family that will soon go its separate ways.

Their eulogies for the lost rover are below. Some have been condensed for space and clarity.

Scott Maxwell, former rover planning lead for Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity

Maxwell drove the rover for nine years before leaving the mission and NASA in 2013.

“Put simply, I loved Opportunity, as I did her twin sister Spirit. I was privileged to be part of a team that was ecstatically devoted to them for years. We sacrificed dinners with family, vacations, whole marriages, to those rovers.

And they were worth it: in exchange, they gave us a planet. They were our eyes and ears, our remote robot bodies, as we made a god into a place. Our daughters, alongside whom we were lucky enough to walk a while.

The thought of saying goodbye to Opportunity fills me with … with mixed emotions. Pride, certainly, at her enormous accomplishments. But grief and despair at her loss. And truthfully, I think the pride will have to wait a while. There’s no room for it now.”

Mars Opportunity Rover

Opportunity’s landing platform sits in Eagle Crater, where it came to rest 24 sols, or Mars days, before this image was taken (February 17, 2004). After touchdown, mission controllers renamed the lander the Challenger Memorial Station, in honor of the astronauts who died in the space-shuttle disaster in January 1986. (Credit:
NASA/JPL/CORNELL)

Tanya Harrison, Director of Research for the Space Technology and Science (“NewSpace”) Initiative at ASU and Science Team Collaborator on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity.

Harrison’s research has focused on the role of water in Mars’ history — something Opportunity has played a role in uncovering.

“If I had the chance to say one last goodbye to Oppy, I would thank her for her tireless service above and beyond all possible expectations. There’s probably no more fitting way for her to have gone than in the strongest dust storm we’ve ever seen on Mars — for her, I would expect nothing less. Now she can rest, beneath a thin layer of dust, knowing she did humanity proud.”

 

Mike Siebert, former Opportunity rover planner

Siebert started on the mission in 2005 as a tactical activity planner / sequence integration engineer, eventually becoming a flight director for the mission and rover planner.

“[Opportunity is] the longest lasting mission we’ve had on the surface. That rover was basically driving until the end. It deployed its IDD [the rover’s arm] shortly before the storms started. My understanding is that the arm is actually placed on the ground. They’ve got an instrument down ready to do science. The fact that you’ve had a functioning mission for this long … it set a bar awfully high for Mars exploration. Mars 2020 is going to really have to work to best Opportunity. It’s appropriate that Perseverance Valley is where the Opportunity rover rests.”

 

Mars victoria crater

NASA’s Opportunity rover stands watch over Victoria Crater in this image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This view, snapped in October 2006, offered the public a taste of what NASA’s Mars probe would eventually deliver. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Keri Bean, Science Planner on Opportunity 

Bean is a former NASA Dawn spacecraft mission scientist who has since become part of both the Opportunity and Curiosity teams.

“Because (Opportunity has) such a small team, we have a lot more of a family feel, and that’s something I haven’t really found in any of the other projects I’ve worked on. We’re all really close, we hang out on the weekends, we go out to dinner, and I haven’t really gotten that vibe with any other project. Not that we’re not friendly on other projects, just that this seems to hold a special place in our hearts and that we bond together.

I think Opportunity’s made the solid case that at least in some point in the past, Mars was habitable. We don’t know when, we don’t know if it ever happened, but at least there were several spots on Mars where we could have potentially had life whether now or in the past and I think that’s really fascinating.

For me personally, I think Opportunity has always just kind of always persevered. Mars has thrown a heck of a lot at her. This isn’t even her first global dust storm. She’s survived so much. Parts have broken along the way. There’ve been problems along the way. Yet every single time, we’ve overcome it and this is finally the one we can’t overcome. It’s kind of bittersweet that she’s dying in Perseverance Valley. I wish she could have persevered a little longer, but Mars had other plans.

The team has certainly had its ups and its downs and some people have had to leave to other projects already. We’re running on a skeleton crew at this point. It’s sort of sad to see this family disbanded.”

 

Abby Fraeman, deputy project scientist

Fraeman has been involved with the mission since she was a teenager, moving from a student program sponsored by the Planetary Society where she was able to witness the rover landing, to working as a summer associate in undergraduate and graduate research before becoming a member of the team.

“In terms of the science accomplishments, Opportunity was the first rover to find evidence for liquid water on the surface of Mars. Before that we didn’t have any definitive evidence. It was the first rover to look at sedimentary rocks on another planet. We learned a lot about how to drive rovers on another planet using Opportunity.

We’ve looked at rocks from two very different periods in Mars’ history, and we found evidence for two very different environments during the time periods, which is important for constraining the evolution of the planet as a whole. We found the earlier rocks probably formed in an environment that could have hosted life. We’ve also kind of learned more about processes that govern the solar system like impact cratering. We’ve studied hundreds of craters, including the biggest one we’ve spent the past few years looking at, Endeavor Crater, and this helps us understand more of this process that’s so important for the solar system.

Another legacy that I think is important from my personal story is the legacy of inspiration. I know I’m not the only one who has a story who thinks that Spirit and Opportunity flipped a switch in their heads and said “oh my gosh, I’d love to pursue a career in math or in science to be able to something like this for a career,” whether it be a rover or doing science. I think that’s another important legacy that’s a little bit harder to quantify, but it’s just as important as the science results that have come out.”

 

mars opportunity rover shadow selfie

In 2014, Opportunity snapped this image of its own late-afternoon shadow. (Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ashley Stroupe, rover planner, Opportunity; Curiosity engineering team

Stroupe served with Spirit and Opportunity starting on Spirit’s sol 289, roughly one month into the Opportunity mission. She has since risen the ranks and brought her experience to the Curiosity team.

It’s sort of bittersweet. We lasted almost 15 years for a three-month mission. We made multiple scientific discoveries that fundamentally changed our understanding of Mars, in a way that has guided all of the future exploration that we’ve been doing since the Curiosity Rover. And to have been a part of that, and to have had it be so much more successful than anybody’s wildest imagination, is a really wonderful thing.

It’s going to be a sad day, but it’s also going to be a day to celebrate in a way, because what we’ve accomplished is incredible and honestly may never be matched again.

I think the real scientific legacy is that Opportunity was the first confirmation on the ground using chemical signatures and other things that we had, prevalent water, flowing water on the surface of Mars, and for a long period of time, that it wasn’t just a single moment in time. It wasn’t just groundwater. It really proved that these formations that we see from Earth that look like old river channels and other things probably really were water carved, and that the water was there consistently and for a long period of time. And I think that’s going to be one of the real legacies.

The other one I really think is the engineering legacy. We’ve accomplished things with engineering that, like I said, nobody could have imagined when we started. Being able to operate rovers in the difficult terrain, steep slopes, sand, and with diminishing capabilities. That has really informed how we design all of our future rovers.

I mean, things that we had to do to survive with Spirit and Opportunity have now become fundamental built in parts of Curiosity and 2020. And again, I don’t know that we’ll ever have another surface asset that contributes as much for as long. I certainly think that the distance that we’ve driven may be the longest we drive off the planet for a very long time to come. And just being able to look at that and say, “Look at what we can achieve.” I think that will be the other half of its legacy.

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Ecology

What if a jolt of electricity could make you happy?

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Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using joly of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using jolts of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

People all around the world (or at least where Netflix is available) have been exhausting themselves of late trying to “spark joy” in their lives. The urge comes from cleaning guru Marie Kondo, whose philosophy rests on the principle that we should rid our homes and minds of things that don’t inspire bursts of pleasure.

The message resonates, in part, because it ties positivity to the world of material things. Happiness is in our minds. So having a tangible mechanism for producing joy is understandably comforting.

But there’s a simpler way to spark joy, if we really want to get literal about it. Any emotion we feel has a physical cause inside our brains. Electrical charges pass from neuron to neuron, spreading ripples of thought and feeling. What we call happiness is just electricity. And now researchers say they’ve found a remarkably specific means of triggering the electrical fireworks that add up to happiness in our brains. By electrically stimulating a brain region known as the cingulum, scientists created spontaneous laughter and a sense of calm and joy in three different patients.

The find could lead to treatments for anxiety and depression, and it hints at insights into the very roots of our emotions themselves.

An artist's illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Credit: From Bijanki et al, J. Clin. Invest. (2019). Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

An artist’s illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

Unexpected Bliss

The young woman is clad in hospital garb, sitting upright in a bed. A white hospital cap mushrooms above her head, wires splay from its rear. She’s due for brain surgery in a few days to treat a difficult, disruptive kind of epilepsy. She’s been worried and anxious.

She breaks into a radiant smile, laughter flowing uninhibited.

“I’m kind of like smiling because I can’t help it,” she says. A bit later, “Sorry, that’s just a really good feeling. That’s awesome.”

Neuroscientists just administered a tiny jolt of electricity to wires threaded through her skull and into her brain. The wires are there to guide surgeons to the source of her seizures. But before the procedure, she’s agreed to play guinea pig to a team of Emory University researchers.

Patients like her offer an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to test the workings of various brain regions with unparalleled specificity. By delivering targeted bursts of electricity through the electrodes, they can watch what happens when specific neural circuits are activated.

The team was sending small bursts of electricity to her cingulum, a horseshoe of brain matter that links to regions associated with emotion, self-assessment, social interaction and motivation, among other things. It’s also known to regulate anxiety and depression.

This kind of research, though hardly common, is not new. The patient’s reaction is.

“It was really exciting,” says Kelly Bijanki, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies behavioral neuromodulation. She was one of the scientists working with the young woman, whose name was not given for privacy reasons, that day. She says the kind of spontaneous joy she saw was unprecedented.

Experiments with brain stimulation have elicited laughter and smiles before. But those responses seemed mechanical. Bijanki says the patients usually described it as a purely motor response. “Their body has laughed, but there’s no content to it.”

This case was different. There was real warmth behind the laughter; true happiness in her voice. At one point, the patient reported she was “so happy she could cry,” the researchers write in their paper.

“The way she was laughing was really infectious,” Bijanki says. “The whole room felt different: she was laughing, she was having a good time, and not afraid. Just that social, emotional contagion took over.”

Further tests confirmed the response. They conducted sham trials, telling the patient that they were providing stimulation when they weren’t. She didn’t react. They tested various levels of stimulation and saw that the more electricity they delivered, the stronger the joyous reaction was. The pattern remained the same: An initial burst of exultation faded into a state of happy relaxation after several seconds.

The researchers found no drawbacks to the treatment, either, they report in a paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Her language skills and memory remained perfectly intact, and they saw no ill aftereffects of the stimulation.

In a screengrab from the scientists' experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit:)

In a screengrab from the scientists’ experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit: Bijanki et al, Journal of Clinical Investigation)

Put to the Test

The woman’s impending surgery would require her to remain awake while surgeons probed inside her skull. Their goal was to cut out the tissue responsible for her epilepsy, but it’s a game of millimeters. Doctors must remove enough to ensure that seizures don’t recur, but without causing permanent harm. The patient’s seizures appeared to emanate from a region near to language processing centers. Her job was to stay awake while surgeons worked, reading and talking to ensure they wouldn’t excise anything important.

The brain stimulation turned out to work so well that doctors were able to cut out completely the drugs used to manage anxiety during this type of brain surgery. Those medications can make patients sleepy and unresponsive, so the anesthesiologist decided to stop them midway through. The young woman, her skull opened to surgical tools, breezed through.

“During the surgery … she was telling me jokes about her dad, where prior to turning on the stimulation she had been crying and hyperventilating and right on the edge of panic,” Bijanki says.

To confirm their findings, the researchers performed the same tests with two more epilepsy patients with electrodes similarly implanted in their skulls. They got the same results. Jabs of electricity literally sparking joy inside their heads.

Putting Happiness to Work

It’s too simplistic to say the researchers have stumbled upon the place where joy hides within us. The brain is complex, and emotions well up from more than just a single place. Multiple brain regions are involved, and each contributes a facet to the emotion that we come to know as happiness.

In fact, researchers have found joy in another place in the brain as well. Sameer Sheth, a neurosurgeon at the Baylor College of Medicine, says that he’s had patients report feelings of euphoria during the course of his own work with brain stimulation as well. He was working with the ventral striatum, a region separate from the cingulum, though the two are tightly connected.

Stimulation to the ventral striatum has also produced the same sort of laughter and mood elevation that Bijanki saw, Sheth says.

But just because emotions are neurologically complex doesn’t mean there’s no value to understanding their origins.

“The more we understand this circuitry, the more we can fine tune how to harness that capability within an individual and the better we’ll be able to treat patients with mood disorders,” Sheth says.

Bijanki sees a range of applications for brain stimulation aimed at specific targets, beginning with the kind of surgeries the young epileptic was undergoing. By precluding the use of sedatives, the find might give brain surgeons new options when performing the kind of procedures the young woman went through. Allowing patients to give more feedback could make brain surgeries more targeted. It might also expand the scope of neurosurgery.

“The definition of what is an inoperable tumor is in some circumstances related to what is the surgeon reasonably comfortable with removing that isn’t going to ruin the patients life,” Bijanki says. “If the surgeon could know that in real time, then the surgery could proceed a little bit differently.”

More broadly, it could also find use as a treatment for mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD. Bijanki imagines electrodes powered by a pacemaker battery delivering continuous, low-grade stimulation to patients with depressive disorders.

In the future, we may not even need wires to spark such emotions. Scientists are developing means of activating brain regions with pulses of light, or with ultrasound. Flashes and vibrations could one day deliver ease to the afflicted.

There are drugs that accomplish similar things today, of course, but those often have side effects, and the treatment isn’t always as direct. Brain stimulation could offer a better path.

Banish the Sadness

Bijanki was also struck by an odd side-effect of the stimulation. Though patients had no trouble recalling sad memories during treatment, the recollections were wholly powerless to make them feel unhappy.

“I remember my dog dying, and I remember that it was a sad memory, but I don’t feel sad about it right now,” the young woman said, as reported by the researchers in their paper. Another patient concurred, unable to recollect a tragic memory without smiling. The effect is slightly jarring, but it could provide a shield of sorts to those overcoming trauma.

Those suffering from PTSD often go through what’s called exposure therapy, where they are asked to repeatedly sift through memories of a traumatic event. The goal is to drain those memories of their fearsome power over time, but it is difficult, frightening work.

Paired with temporary brain stimulation that elides sadness, Bijanki thinks PTSD patients might be far better equipped to tread through painful memories.

Finding Balance

Ultimately, however, the goal of therapies involving brain stimulation isn’t to wipe out negative emotions.

Anger, sadness and fear are not without their merits, and banishing them could have unintended consequences. Sadness sits at the other end of the spectrum from happiness, for example. Taking away any of our emotions would be removing an aspect of our humanity. What’s more, we have emotions for a reason.

“Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us,” Bijanki says.

That’s not the goal here, of course, though discussions about the ethical use of such technologies in the future is certainly warranted. Bijanki says that we’d need to be careful about applying things like brain stimulation that could be abused.

But, she’s not very worried about electrodes and electric shocks becoming the next designer drug. It’s just too technically demanding, she says. And the potential benefits for those with depression and other conditions are great.

Sometimes the bad can outweigh the good. In those cases, sparking a little joy might be what we need.

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NASA Picks Science Experiments to Send to the Moon This Year

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Just Made its Second Trip to Space

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SpaceShipTwo under rocket power

SpaceShipTwo is carried into the air on the back of a plane, but then takes off into space under its own power. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flew in space for the second time, taking off from Mojave, California after days of weather delay. SpaceShipTwo took off at 8:07 a.m. PST carrying two pilots, a crewmember, and a nearly full weight of science projects from NASA.

Unlike most spaceflights that fire rockets from the ground, SpaceShipTwo is carried on the belly of a plane named WhiteKnightTwo before being released to propel itself into the upper atmosphere. After being carried 45,000 feet into the air, SpaceShipTwo successfully fired its rocket engine and reached suborbital space at approximately 8:55 a.m. PST. It coasted there for only a few minutes before heading back toward the ground, where it landed much like any other plane, roughly an hour after takeoff. Like all of SpaceShipTwo’s planned flights, this one was suborbital, meaning it does not reach orbit, and attains weightlessness for only a few minutes during its trip.

SpaceShipTwo made its maiden space voyage in December 2018, and today was its fifth powered flight in total. Unlike other private spaceflight companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic has made their main goal ferrying private citizens into space, and have been taking reservations for years.

The third crewmember today was Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor and cabin evaluation lead. Her job today was to see how SpaceShipTwo feels from the cabin. Eventually, Virgin Galactic hopes to seat six passengers in place of the science payloads – or alongside them.

The spacecraft today also carried research projects from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which pairs research institutions with private companies who can fly their projects into space. The combined weight of the payloads put SpaceShipTwo at close to, but just under, the requirements for the commercial launch weight that NASA has specified. One of Virgin Galactic’s goals during this flight was testing how the vehicle flies with a greater weight distribution. Details will likely come later, but the flight was successful, which bodes well for the craft’s future in ferrying cargo as well as passengers.

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