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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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 herÂ 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.
“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.
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.