- NASA’s Opportunity rover is officially dead and the mission is over, the agency said Wednesday.
- The rover stopped communicating in June 2018 during a brutal Martian dust storm, but NASA didn’t give up hope that the machine might re-connect after the dust settled and the rover gathered solar power.
- But finally, after one last failed attempt to call Opportunity on Tuesday, NASA has declared the mission officially over.
- Still, Opportunity’s near 15-year stint on Mars was impressive for a robot designed to last only months.
- Here are a few of Opportunity’s most noteworthy accomplishments.
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover was built to last just 90 Martian sols, or 92 Earth days. But the scrappy machine shocked engineers by surviving far longer than that. The rover withstood nearly 15 years of tough conditions on Mars before finally succumbing to a violent dust storm that shook the Martian globe last June.
NASA made one last unsuccessful attempt to phone Opportunity on Tuesday before declaring the mission officially over.
“When this little rover landed, the objective was to have it be able to move 1,100 yards and survive for 90 days on Mars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Wednesday. “Instead here we are, 14 years later, after 28 miles of travel, and we get to celebrate the end of this mission.”
Opportunity launched toward Mars on July 7, 2003 and landed there on January 25, 2004. Engineers at NASA did not expected the solar-powered machine to weather a single Martian winter; but in the end, the golf-cart-sized rover managed to crawl more than a marathon’s distance on the red planet.
After Mars endured a global dust storm last summer that covered the planet in red dirt, the resulting darkness made it too tough for Opportunity to capture much-needed solar power. NASA hasn’t heard a peep from the golf-cart sized rover since it was put into a nap in safe mode during the big storm. It turned out to be the robot’s final slumber.
Here’s a look back at what the Opportunity rover accomplished during its unlikely journey on Mars.
Opportunity was one of two six-wheeled rovers that NASA launched to Mars in 2003. Its twin, Spirit, left Earth on June 10, followed by Opportunity on July 7.
Spirit survived on Mars for more than six years.
Opportunity blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Scientists hoped the twin rovers would help them figure out whether Mars might have once been a place where life could exist.
It took the two rovers more than six months to fly the roughly 283 million miles to Mars.
Opportunity arrived on Mars on January 25, 2004, and was drop-bounced onto the ground inside of a kind of heavy-duty bubble wrap.
The rover’s heat shield protected the machine as it whizzed through the Martian atmosphere, helping Opportunity land safely.
The rover then disembarked and drove off in search of adventure.
Opportunity wasn’t speedy: it logged an average of roughly two miles of exploration on Mars per year.
The rover travelled up to about 130 feet each Martian day, according to NASA.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California tried to simulate some of the tough driving conditions that the rovers would face on Mars before they launched.
The Spirit rover’s end came after it got caught in some soft soil and lost contact with NASA in 2010.
The instruments on the Opportunity rover included cameras, spectrometers that studied chemicals and minerals, a rock grinder, and a brush for sweeping dust off rocks.
NASA called Opportunity a “a golf-cart-size robotic field geologist.”
The rover’s robotic arm, shown above in its stow position, was designed to dispatch four different kinds of tools that the machine used to inspect its surroundings. But at least two instruments stopped working before Opportunity’s final demise, and the robotic arm got creaky and old.
Some of the first things Opportunity spotted on Mars were these small, round balls that NASA nicknamed “blueberries.”
Opportunity caught a glimpse of these hematite-rich spherules on the Martian surface near the Fram Crater in April 2004.
Their round shape gave scientists good evidence there was probably water on Mars at some point.
Opportunity spent most of its time on Mars examining rock layers in craters. From 2011 to the end of its life in 2018, the rover explored the area around the Endeavour Crater, which is 14 miles wide and at least 3.6 billion years old.
Opportunity passed by the 10-million-year-old Orion crater, shown above, on April 26, 2017. Orion sits on the western rim of the Endeavour Crater and is just 90 feet wide.
Opportunity captured this panorama of pictures using three kinds of light filters to capture near-infrared, green, and violet light. The image has been enhanced so that we can see differences in the surface material on Mars more clearly.
Scientists think the rocks pictured here hint that Mars might have harbored life long ago, since there are signs that water moved through rocky cracks.
The rover explored Mars’ Endurance crater from May to December 2004.
The rover’s front hazard avoidance camera, which took this shot, looked out for danger ahead.
Engineers back on Earth rehearsed moves the rover might make in the Endurance crater, hoping to avoid disaster.
Opportunity ventured down and examined the crater’s steep, rocky walls for clues about the planet’s past.
The rover discovered that water had flowed on the planet on more than one occasion.
The rover hovered at the edge of Erebus Crater in November and December 2005. This image shows a bird’s eye view of Opportunity projected from the rover’s panoramic cameras. Opportunity is the bright spot in the middle — its solar panels glint in the sun.
The “pancam” was actually two digital cameras that worked like 360-degree viewing eyes. The device was mounted on poles that could raise the eyes up over 4 feet, which is how the rover captured this view.
In this image, the rover is surrounded by rocks and sand dunes. The Martian soil is not actually blue – the false-colour image serves to emphasise some features of the land.
Opportunity saddled up to the Victoria crater, which is five times wider than the Endurance crater, on September 26, 2006. In this image, the rover appears as a tiny speck on the rim.
This picture was not taken by the rover – it’s a shot from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) that’s been orbiting Mars and taking super high-resolution photos of the planet since 2006.
In the Victoria Crater, Opportunity spied this promontory called Cape Verde on October 20, 2007.
Opportunity became something of a Mars rock expert after repeatedly drilling into the planet’s surface to analyse chemicals inside.
“The reddish colour around the holes is from iron-rich dust produced during the grinding operation,” NASA said of this image.
Between the dust storms and the cold, dark winters, Mars is a tough place to be a solar-powered machine. By 2014, Opportunity’s solar panels looked much browner and dustier than they did when the rover landed.
But Opportunity kept chugging along for four more years.
In 2015, NASA announced that the rover had travelled a marathon’s worth of miles on Mars: 26.2 miles over 11 years and two months.
That’s the farthest any Earthly machine has ever travelled on another world.
“This mission isn’t about setting distance records, of course; it’s about making scientific discoveries on Mars and inspiring future explorers to achieve even more,” Opportunity mission leader Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, said of the feat in 2015. “Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool.”
In total, Opportunity witnessed 5,111 Martian days, or “sols,” on the red planet.
That’s impressive for a machine that was expected to last just 90 sols.
In the end, a global dust storm rendered Opportunity’s solar panels useless, and the rover went to sleep.
“This is the worst storm Opportunity has ever seen,” Squyres told the Planetary Society during the June storm.
NASA made what would turn out to be its final contact with the rover on June 10, 2018. The space agency listened intently for more than eight months after that, searching for signs that Opportunity might wake up again.
In the end, NASA sent over 1,000 commands trying to re-establish contact. But with Opportunity’s batteries likely drained, the rover wasn’t able to wake from the storm and answer the calls.
“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,” NASA Mars Exploration Rover project manager John Callas said.
Despite Opportunity’s death, NASA’s Mars exploration continues. The agency’s solar-powered InSight lander touched down successfully in November, and will be checking for Mars quakes, the Martian version of earthquakes.
InSight doesn’t move the way Opportunity did, but the Curiosity rover is still cruising around on Mars. And soon, a new set of wheels may arrive: the Mars 2020 rover.
Curiosity has been on the red planet since 2012.
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is set to launch in the summer of 2020, and will examine Martian rocks for signs of ancient life.
Some of those rock samples might someday return to Earth, where human scientists could examine them, instead of leaving the work to robots.
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