The spacecraft lasted more than 50 times longer than originally planned, delivering groundbreaking science and inspiring a generation
Published By @EMPIREGENIUS
After more than 14 years driving across the surface of Mars, the NASA rover Opportunity has fallen silent—marking the end of a defining mission to another world.
At a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, NASA bid farewell to the rover it placed on Mars on January 25, 2004: before Facebook, before the iPhone, and even before some of the scientists now in charge of it graduated high school. In its record-breaking time on Mars, the rover drove more than 28 miles, finding some of the first definitive signs of past liquid water on the red planet’s surface.
“With this mission, more than other robotic missions, we have made that human bond, so saying goodbye is a lot harder. But at the same time, we have to remember this phenomenal accomplishment—this historic exploration we’ve done,” says John Callas, the project manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers mission. “I think it’ll be a long time before any mission surpasses what we were able to do.”
NASA had not heard from the rover since June 2018, when one of the most severe dust storms ever observed on Mars blotted out much of the red planet’s sky and overtook the solar-powered rover. Initially, the storm didn’t give the team pause. From about November to January, the red planet saw seasonal winds strong enough to wipe accumulated dust from Opportunity’s solar panels, which is one of the major reasons the rover lasted so long in the first place. But when “rover cleaning” season came and went without signals from Opportunity, hopes that it had survived began to dim
On January 25, the team sent Opportunity a set of last-ditch commands, hoping that the rover had fallen silent because of malfunctioning antennae and an internal clock on the fritz. But the commands meant to fix this admittedly unlikely scenario didn’t wake the rover.
Now, as Martian fall and winter overtake it, NASA says that the rover will remain forever paused halfway down a windswept gully, named Perseverance Valley for the rover’s dogged effort.
The announcement marks the end of the record-smashing Mars Exploration Rovers mission, which built and operated Opportunity and its sibling rover, Spirit. The two rovers were each designed to go less than a mile and last 90 to a hundred Martian days, or sols. But the pair surpassed every conceivable expectation. After landing on January 4, 2004, Spirit drove hard through rugged terrain until it got stuck in 2009 and went silent in 2010. Meanwhile, Opportunity went farther for longer than any other vehicle on another world—and all other Mars rovers combined.
“It was one heck of a mission, wasn’t it?” Mike Seibert, a former driver of Opportunity, says in an email. “I am looking forward to the future when Opportunity’s records fall, because that will mean that we continue to explore our solar system. And I look forward to congratulating the team that puts Opportunity into second place.” (See amazing pictures from 20 years of nonstop rovers on Mars.)
“I always felt that were really two honorable ways for a mission like this to end,” adds Cornell planetary scientist Steve Squyres, the mission’s longtime principal investigator. “One is simply that we wear the vehicles out. The other is Mars just finally reaches out and kills them. To have Opportunity go for 14-and-a-half years and then get taken out by one of the most ferocious Mars dust storms in decades—if that’s the way it plays out, we can walk away with our heads held high.”
Published By @EMPIREGENIUS