The story of NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity is brought to life in the fantastic new documentary Good Night Oppy, out globally on Amazon Prime Video on November 23. From the first conceptual idea to the final moments of the missions, the story of the "Mars Exploration Rovers" chronicled in this feature-length movie is a love letter to both the robot explorers and the many people that worked on them.
Featuring the mellifluous narration of Angela Bassett, the documentary highlights the struggle to get the missions going, the troubles encountered both on the way to Mars and once they got there, and the hard work it took to get as much science as possible out of the two rovers in the 90 sols – Martian days – they were expected to function on Mars.
In the end, Spirit worked for 2,623 sols, equivalent to 6 years, 9 months, and 12 days. Opportunity’s mission lasted an incredible 5,352 sols, over 15 years. The rovers, the scientists, and the engineers went above and beyond what was thought possible – and it was all caught on camera.
“We were given a thousand hours of footage from NASA of the entire lifespan of this robots,” director Ryan White told IFLScience. “That is always a huge challenge when you need to watch every minute of that footage and you don’t want to miss the great things. Luckily we were able to assemble a great team that looked at every second of this footage and that’s how we found the most magical moments.”
The Primetime Emmy-nominated and award-winning White was picked for the directing role thanks to his work on several successful character-focused projects, including Netflix's The Keepers. It might seem an unusual choice for a scientific documentary, but it fits perfectly with what this feature is really about: Spirit and Opportunity have taken on such an anthropomorphized form that both the public and the mission members saw them as more than just rovers.
They were fully-fledged scientists, doing geological analyses that would otherwise not have been possible from space. And they could move and see the alien world around them, beaming back their views to mission control back home. Their contribution to our understanding of Mars still remains enormous.
“What Opportunity and Spirit showed was that Mars not only had liquid water but also that it had liquid water at multiple different times in its history and in multiple different settings,” Dr Abigail Fraeman, the Deputy Project Scientist for Curiosity and formerly for Opportunity, told IFLScience.
The two rovers found evidence in rocks of water associated with volcanos and extremely acidic water, but also neutral water and even groundwater. A particularly interesting discovery was the Homestake vein spotted by Opportunity.
“It was this vein of a mineral called gypsum, which is a salt that we found as we were drying towards the rim of Endeavour crater. It was the first time we had seen anything like that on Mars. It is this bright white feature in this dark sand, so it really stuck out," Dr Fraeman explained. "It is formed by groundwater and it was the first time we saw that. Now we see gypsum veins all over Mars.”
The achievements of the rovers are not just in their scientific output. The work by the engineering team created a blueprint for how to build and operate a rover on another planet. This paved the way for Curiosity and Perseverance.
And, vitally, the rovers made Mars feel real. Between the two of them. they took 356,995 raw images, a library of views that hammered home that we truly had two explorers on the surface of another world that they were doing things and seeing stuff that we couldn’t.
Asking to pick favorites is difficult, but Doug Ellison, Engineering Camera Payload Uplink Lead on Opportunity (now working with Curiosity) told us a couple of his. The first is the famous image of the dust devils – the whirlwinds that can form on Mars and help clean the rovers of their dust.
“Opportunity almost never saw dust devils. Spirit saw thousands, but we were on the rim of Endeavour Crater and just looking back down where we’ve been driving, purely by chance not a concerted effort to hunt for dust devils, right in the middle of that post-drive image there is a huge dust devil. It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Ellison said.
The second image he picked was the historic selfie taken to celebrate 5,000 sols on Mars, something that was truly a feat of engineering to achieve. But the documentary tells the story in detail, so we won't spoil it for you
After exceeding every expectation, NASA lost contact with Opportunity on June 10, 2018, during a major dust storm. The team tried in vain to re-establish contact until February 12 of the following year. Its last heartbreaking message cemented the humanity that we have projected onto the rover: “My battery is low and it's getting dark.”
One day, some astronauts might find Oppy and Spirit again and they will have a place of honor in the Museum of Martian exploration. For now, we can but wish these two rovers a good night. They have most definitely earned their rest.
Good Night Oppy will be available to watch on Prime Video from November 23.