NASA says goodbye to Mars rover Opportunity

Science and Technology

On February 13, NASA officially declared the end of Mars rover Opportunity’s mission on the red planet. After a long 14 years, the robot geologist joined its twin rover Spirit in retirement. Initially scheduled for a 90-day mission with Spirit in 2004, Opportunity, affectionately nicknames Oppy, worked longer than any other rover on Mars. It covered more than 45 km (28 miles) and with the help of Spirit returned over 342,000 raw images, including 31 360-degree colour panoramas. NASA ended Spirit’s mission back in 2011 after it got stuck in soil in 2009. In contrast, Opportunity continued to work alongside a new rover, Curiosity which landed on Mars in 2012. However, in June 2018, a planet-wide dust storm covered the solar-powered rover, preventing its battery from recharging. Since then, no responses came back from the robot.

Opportunity’s contributions during its mission were key to our further understanding of Mars.

In a last effort to wake the sleeping robot, NASA sent a final song to Opportunity- ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ by Billie Holiday. Despite all these efforts, NASA flight controllers still heard nothing. After failing to respond to more than 1,000 signals since August 2018, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Thomas Zurbuchen announced the end of Opportunity’s mission.

“I’m standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude to declare the Opportunity mission as complete,” Zurbuchen said. “It transformed our understanding of our own planet.”

Various fans took to social media to express their condolences and heartfelt messages for the hardworking robot including former Star Trek Star George Takei and Tanya Harrison, director of research at ASU NewSpace. Opportunity’s contributions during its mission were key to our further understanding of Mars. Its analysis of clay minerals near the Endeavor crater confirmed that portions of Mars were at time covered in neutral water, suggesting that the planet could have been habitable. Opportunity also discovered the first meteorite to ever be discovered on another planet. In addition to countless images and discovers, Opportunity also inspired many to pursue careers in the science field.

MER deputy project scientist Abigail Fraeman recalled the impact the rovers had on her own experience in science, “There really are hundreds if not thousands of students who, just like me, witnessed these rovers and followed along their mission, from images released to the public over the last 15 years and then because of that went on to pursue careers in science.”  Interestingly enough, the rover Curiosity went into standby mode just a few days after NASA’s declaration. Curiosity experienced a small error when booting up on February 19.

“We’re still not sure of its exact cause and are gathering the relevant data for analysis,” said Curiosity deputy project manager Steven Lee. “The rover experienced a one-time computer reset but has operated normally ever since.”

The discoveries Opportunity made has since inspired new missions, particularly for the ExoMars rover which is set to launch in 2020. The rover, recently named Rosalind Franklin, is set to drill and look for signs of life. While we say goodbye to the two rovers that started it all, the data collected by both Spirit and Opportunity will continue to aid scientists to new discoveries in the years to come.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University