Farewell Opportunity: NASA ends efforts to contact silent Mars rover
What arguably could be considered one of NASA’s most successful missions has drawn to a close. It was announced on Feb. 13, 2019, that the remaining Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, had fallen silent and that efforts to continue to try and reestablish communications with the rover have ended. Its passing leaves a legacy that other NASA automated missions will be hard-pressed to match.
In recent weeks, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) had stepped up efforts to contact the silent rover by sending commands designed to address some of the less likely scenarios that could be preventing the rover from communicating. As of Feb. 6, over 835 recovery command had been sent to the rover. The final attempt to contact Opportunity was made on Feb. 12.
Opportunity joined her sister rover, Spirit (MER-A), on the surface of the Red Planet on Jan. 25, 2004. The duo were deployed to opposite sides of Mars, with Spirit placed in the Gusev Crater and Opportunity (MER-B), landing in the Meridiani Planum region.
It was thought that Spirit and Opportunity’s operational life would be about three months. In terms of Opportunity, mission managers got more, much more than they anticipated—about one 177 months longer than anticipated.
The extra years that were chalked up by the rover meant that it was able to drive for far greater distances than planned. The rover’s odometer ended with a distance of about 28 miles (45 kilometers). This meant that Opportunity had achieved the longest “drive” off planet in history.
“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 Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “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.”
All Good Things
The robotic explorer has long outlived its planned 90-day mission duration. However, the massive global dust storm on Mars in mid-2018 silenced the rover forever. NASA last heard from Opportunity on June 10, 2018 (Sol 5111).
As the rover continued to operated far beyond its expected lifespan, the mission team chose the rim of Endeavour Crater as Opportunity’s long-term destination. The rover’s investigations of the rim have yielded information about past wet conditions that were less acidic and more favorable to microbial life than those encountered earlier in Opportunity’s journey.
Opportunity launched atop a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 17 in Florida on July 7, 2003. The rover landed on Jan. 25, 2004, in a small crater about 72 feet (22 meters) in diameter, which was later informally named “Eagle Crater.”
The rover lasted much longer, and drove much further than anyone expected, greatly increasing our knowledge of the Red Planet. Both Opportunity and Spirit have helped NASA gain a better understanding of the formation and conditions of Mars.
This wealth of knowledge has been put to use in the follow-on rover, Curiosity (which landed in August of 2012) as well as the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission.
Opportunity’s final resting spot is the western limb of Perseverance Valley on the west side of Endeavour crater.
“I cannot think of a more appropriate place for Opportunity to endure on the surface of Mars than one called Perseverance Valley,” said Michael Watkins, director of JPL. “The records, discoveries and sheer tenacity of this intrepid little rover is testament to the ingenuity, dedication, and perseverance of the people who built and guided her.”
Video courtesy of JPL
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.