The Opportunity rover is dead, at age 15.
After spending over 5,000 Martian days rumbling through the inhospitable red desert planet, NASA acknowledged on Wednesday that its sun-powered exploration rover hasn’t responded to over 800 attempts at contact since June 2018, and is presumed dead.
“I’m standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude to declare the Opportunity mission as complete,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Deprived of sunlight by a dust storm the size of North America, Opportunity came to rest on Mars in a place known as “Perseverance Valley,” which sits on the edge of the 14-mile wide Endeavor crater. It is here that the 400-pound machine, built by NASA engineers in Southern California, will now spend millennia getting blanketed in red dust, for the Martian winds don’t ever stop blowing. Its batteries, completely bereft of power, will not turn on again.
“The rover isn’t just some hunk of metal on a distant planet,” Bill Nelson, chief of the Opportunity mission’s engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told us last June after the rover stopped communicating with its home base on Earth.
“It’s like a family member. We don’t talk about it — we talk about her,” Nelson said.
NASA engineers made their last attempt at contacting Opportunity on Feb. 12.
The rover didn’t respond.
Opportunity traveled farther on extraterrestrial land than any vehicle in human history. Before becoming immobilized in June 2018, the rover had traveled 28 miles (45.2 kilometers), passing the record set by the Soviet moon rover Lunokhod 2, which drove 24 miles in 1973.
But Opportunity wasn’t ever expected to travel so far. NASA gave the six-wheeled robot a life-expectancy of 90 days. But after launching from Earth in 2003, Opportunity survived for 14 years on Mars.
Spirit, Opportunity’s sister rover, preceded Opportunity in death, dying after six years of exploration, in 2010. After getting impossibly stuck in the desert soil, Spirit was caught at an unfortunate angle, and the rover no longer absorbed enough sunlight to survive.
“She simply froze to death,” said Nelson.
Opportunity is survived by the Curiosity rover, a larger car-sized robot that began its Martian exploration in the summer of 2012, after a terrifying landing. Another, more advanced rover will soon join Curiosity in 2020. The 2020 rover will fire lasers at the long-frozen Martian rocks as it seeks to find past evidence of primitive life on Mars — should any exist.
In the end, Opportunity’s Martian life ended the way it started, amid a ruthless desert storm.
As Opportunity hurtled through space in 2003, en route to Mars, a suffocating dust storm began to swirl on the red world, eventually encompassing one-fourth of the entire planet.
NASA engineers feared that the dust storm would interfere with the deployment of Opportunity’s parachutes. Shredded parachutes meant certain death for the rover, which would smash into the rusty ground.
Because of the time lapse between Mars and Earth, Nelson had to wait for the signal to arrive from Opportunity — to hear if the machine had survived.
“The mission was either made or destroyed before we heard the first word of it hitting the atmosphere,” said Nelson. “That was scary. The sense of tension was palpable. People were on pins and needles.”
Opportunity went on to spend well over a decade on Mars, taking over 200,000 images, discovering pearly, blueberry-like rocks, and finding convincing signs of Mars’ watery past.
Its longevity can be credited to the summation of over 2,000 human minds, who ensured, among many things, that Opportunity’s wheel motors — some of which have made over 100 million revolutions — would survive the incessantly rocky terrain.
In the end, the rover died not due to poor health, but a lack of sunlight.
The dust storm had turned day to night, and Opportunity went to sleep.