Opportunity completes record-setting 15 year mission on Mars

The longest surviving robot ever to explore the surface of Mars – the Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover – was declared dead by NASA officials on February 13, 2019, after conducting a record-setting 15 year mission on the Red Planet, when she failed to respond to a final set of “phone home” commands sent last night from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

Opportunity discovered broad ranging and wide spread evidence that liquid water conducive to life flowed on the Red Planet’s surface long ago. Time and time again she proved the premise and utility of dispatching a mobile robot geologist to uncover these scientific clues. The golf cart sized Opportunity died 15 years into her planned 90 day mission – after having trekked more than a marathon runner’s distance – magnificent tribute to everyone on the team that designed, built and operated her.

NASA engineers made one final attempt at a “phone home call” with their world famous Opportunity Mars Rover that has not communicated a single bit since a massive global dust storm struck eight months ago, silencing the long lived solar powered robot.

Opportunity rover explores around the rim of 70 meter wide Santa Maria Crater on the long trek from Victoria Crater to Endeavour crater in January 2011 on the seventh anniversary of her landing on the Red Planet. The rim of Endeavour is visible in the mosaic on the horizon at the right, just above the shadow of the rover’s mast. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 2476 and colorized. It was featured on APOD that same month. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

“I was there with the team as these commands went out into the deep sky, and I learned this morning that we had not heard back and Opportunity remained silent,” said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, to a packed house of scientists and engineers at JPL on Feb 13. “It is therefore that I’m standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude as I declare the Opportunity mission as complete, and with it the Mars Exploration Rover missions complete.”

“I have to tell you, it’s an emotional time. Science is an emotional affair, it’s a team sport, and that’s what we’re celebrating.”

The long lived robot succumbed to a massive dust storm of historic proportions that encircled the planet eight months ago and turned day into night – thereby starving the six wheeled solar powered robot and killing her capability to convert sunlight into electricity to recharge her batteries.

Complete 15 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2019. This map shows the entire 45-kilometer (28 mile) path the rover drove on the Mars across 15 Earth years (7.8 Mars years), covering a distance equal to more than a marathon race. Opportunity landed inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 and travelled all the way to Perseverance Valley at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover descended about halfway into Perseverance Valley and discovered that it is likely a water carved Martian gully. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and searched for more at Marathon Valley before communication with the rover was lost in 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The last communication from the robot nicknamed “Oppy” with Earth was received June 10, 2018 (Sol 5111) where she stands at Perseverance Valley – a gully carved by flowing liquid water in ancient times along the eroded rim of the giant Endeavour Crater.

Since last June NASA pulled out all the stops to try and regain contact with Opportunity.

In fact on the occasion of her 15th landing anniversary last month (Jan. 24) NASA announced that engineers were implementing a new strategy in hopes of making renewed contact.

This pre-dust storm panoramic mosaic view was one of the last ones taken by the Opportunity rover. It shows the spectacular view from her approximate final position after traveling halfway down the fluid carved slope of Perseverance Valley while peering into the interior of vast Endeavour Crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 5074 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

“The team is continuing to listen for the rover over a broad range of times, frequencies and polarizations using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver,” said NASA in a statement.

As of today more than 1000 recovery commands had been transmitted from the team via the DSN, but nothing has been heard back from Oppy.

“We have made every reasonable engineering effort to try to recover Opportunity and have determined that the likelihood of receiving a signal is far too low to continue recovery efforts,” said John Callas, manager of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project at the JPL briefing.

The final transmission last night was sent via the 70-meter Mars Station antenna at NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Complex in California.

This set of images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows a fierce dust storm kicking up on Mars in June 2018, with NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers marked as icons on the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“We were meant to get to this point, to wear these rovers out, to leave behind no un-utilized capability on the surface of Mars, but we had no idea it would take this long,” added Callas. “But even still, this is a hard day, and this is hard for me because I was there at the beginning.”

Opportunity has driven more 28 miles (45 km) on an amazing overland expedition of science and discovery since landing on Mars 15 years ago. The rover spotted dust devils along the way. Wind related events helped clean off the solar panels renewing her energy and extending her life numerous times.

“I will never forget the amazing work that happened here,” Zurbuchen stated with emotion. “It transformed our understanding of our planet. Everything we do and think about in our planetary neighborhood with Mars and elsewhere relates to the research that came from that, and the engineering breakthroughs that came from that.”

The Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater. Wheel tracks show the rover’s path as it explores the steepest ever slopes of the long mission in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on April 1, 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Until the historic planet encircling dust storm hit in late May 2018, the six wheeled robot had operated for 14 and one half years – far beyond the wildest expectations of the science and engineering team.

In fact Opportunity’s mission was only warrantied to last a mere 90 sols, or three months since sending her first signal back to Earth from the surface on Jan. 24, 2004 at 9:05 p.m. PST. In the end she endured and explored for nearly 15 years and more than 55 times beyond what scientists planned.

Since then Opportunity has conducted a resoundingly successful scientific foray on the alien Red Planets surface on an stunning overland trek encompassing more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) across a region called Meridiani Planum.

The dramatic image of Opportunity’s shadow was taken on sol 180 (July 26, 2004) by the rover’s front hazard-avoidance camera as the rover moved farther into Endurance Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“For more than a decade, Opportunity has been an icon in the field of planetary exploration, teaching us about Mars’ ancient past as a wet, potentially habitable planet, and revealing uncharted Martian landscapes,” said Zurbuchen.

“Whatever loss we feel now must be tempered with the knowledge that the legacy of Opportunity continues ≠ both on the surface of Mars with the Curiosity rover and InSight lander – and in the clean rooms of JPL, where the upcoming Mars 2020 rover is taking shape.”

When the massive planet-encircling dust storm hit Opportunity had been descending down and exploring  Perseverance Valley located along the eroded western rim of the gigantic 22 km diameter (14 mile) impact crater named Endeavour.

Opportunity rover looks south from the top of Perseverance Valley along the rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars in this partial self portrait including the rover deck and solar panels. Perseverance Valley descends from the right and terminates down near the crater floor. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4736 (May 20, 2017) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Amazingly after an interplanetary journey of more than 100 million miles she rolled to a stop and made a hole in one landing inside shallow Eagle Crater. She bounced two dozen times during the improbable airbag assisted landing.

Opportunity and twin sister Spirit found extensive evidence that liquid water once flowed on Mars billions of years ago ago when it was warmer and wetter and thus could potentially have supported Martian microbial life forms. Opportunity discovered clay minerals that formed in pH neutral water more conducive to life.

As of Feb 12, 2019 Opportunity had survived or experienced more than 5350 Sols (or Martian days) roving the harsh environment of the Red Planet. The plucky rover took more than 228,771 images and traversed 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

Opportunity’s view (annotated) on the day the NASA rover exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of Mars. This occurred on March 24, 2015 (Sol 3968). The Martian terrain pictured includes features named in honor of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. The rover stands next to the Spirit of Saint Louis Crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3968 (March 24, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer


Annotated version of the last panorama Opportunity acquired before the solar-powered rover succumbed to a global Martian dust storm on the June 10,2018. The view is presented in false color to make some differences between materials easier to see. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU

Last Opportunity panorama released

This 360-degree panorama is composed of 354 images taken by the Opportunity rover’s Panoramic Camera (Pancam) from May 13 through June 10, 2018, or sols (Martian days) 5,084 through 5,111. This is the last panorama Opportunity acquired before the solar-powered rover succumbed to a global Martian dust storm on the same June 10. The view is presented in false color to make some differences between materials easier to see.

To the right of center and near the top of the frame, the rim of Endeavour Crater rises in the distance. Just to the left of that, rover tracks begin their descent from over the horizon towards the location that would become Opportunity’s final resting spot in Perseverance Valley, where the panorama was taken. At the bottom, just left of center, is the rocky outcrop Opportunity was investigating with the instruments on its robotic arm. To the right of center and halfway down the frame is another rocky outcrop – about 23 feet (7 meters) distant from the camera – called “Ysleta del Sur,” which Opportunity investigated from March 3 through 29, 2018, or sols 5,015 through 5,038. In the far right and left of the frame are the bottom of Perseverance Valley and the floor of Endeavour Crater.

Located on the inner slope of the western rim of Endeavour Crater, Perseverance Valley is a system of shallow troughs descending eastward about the length of two football fields from the crest of Endeavour’s rim to its floor.

This view combines images collected through three Pancam filters. The filters admit light centered on wavelengths of 753 nanometers (near-infrared), 535 nanometers (green) and 432 nanometers (blue). The three-color bands are combined.

A few frames (bottom left) remain black and white, as the solar-powered rover did not have the time to photograph those locations using the green and violet filters before a severe Mars-wide dust storm swept in on June 2018.

This annotated version includes additional information on features visible in the panorama.

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