NASA has finally plugged the plug on its Mars Opportunity rover, which has been silent on the Red Planet’s surface for eight months. “I declare the Opportunity mission is complete,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate during a press conference on Wednesday. “I have to tell you, this is an emotional time,” he added. The rover reached Mars in 2004, but NASA lost contact with the vehicle last year following an epic dust storm that enveloped the red planet and prevented sunlight from reaching its surface. The last signal received from the $400 million solar-powered rover was on June 10, 2018. NASA made its last planned attempts to communicate with Opportunity late on Tuesday, but did not receive any response back. “I heard this morning that we had not heard back,” said Zurbuchen, explaining that the “beloved” rover remains silent. The missing vehicle was spotted three months later. On Sept. 20, the HiRISE high-resolution camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured an image of the rover in Mars’ Perseverance Valley. However, scientists were still unable to talk to the vehicle. Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004 PST, just three weeks after its identical twin, Spirit, reached the Red Planet’s surface. Both outlived and outperformed expectations, on opposite sides of Mars. The golf-cart-sized rovers were designed to operate as geologists for just three months, after bouncing onto our planetary neighbor inside cushioning airbags. They rocketed from Cape Canaveral a month apart in 2003. Spirit was pronounced dead in 2011 a year after it got stuck in sand and communication ceased. “This is a celebration of so many achievements,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, during Wednesday’s press conference at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Opportunity set records on the Red Planet. Rolling along until communication ceased last June, Opportunity roamed a record 28 miles around Mars and worked longer than any other lander. Its greatest achievement was discovering, along with Spirit, evidence that ancient Mars had water flowing on its surface and might have been capable of sustaining microbial life. Contact with Opportunity was lost during the fiercest Martian dust storm in decades. The storm was so intense that it darkened the sky for months, preventing sunlight from reaching the rover’s solar panels. The storm may have scrambled the rover’s internal clock, NASA explained on Wednesday, meaning that the rover would not know when to sleep, wake up, or receive commands. NASA has two other probes operating on Mars. The Curiosity rover, which reached the Red Planet in August 2012, has more than 12 miles on its odometer. NASA’s Insight Mars Lander reached the surface of the Red Planet in November 2018, ending a journey that lasted six months and more than 300 million miles. In November 2018, NASA announced that it has selected the location where its Mars 2020 rover will land on the Red Planet. The rover is expected to land on Mars Feb. 18, 2021.
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover has now been exploring the Red Planet for more than 14 years. The robot landed in Meridiani Planum on the night of Jan. 24, 2004 (PST). (It was Jan. 25 in the GMT time zone, but Opportunity’s handlers work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, so the rover’s milestones are generally celebrated on California time.) Originally intended to work for just 90 days on the Martian surface, the machine is still trekking, continuing its winter exploration of Perseverance Valley on the west rim of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity landed a few weeks after its twin, Spirit, which also far exceeded its warranty. Spirit last communicated with Earth in 2010 and was declared dead a year later. On Sol (Martian day) 4977 — Jan. 23, 2018 — Opportunity received its latest version of flight software. This was copied over the older fallback version in preparation for an update scheduled for later in the year. On Sol 4970 (Jan. 16, 2018), wind cleaned the dust off Opportunity’s solar arrays, a welcome event that happens often at this time of year. Researchers continue to use the rover’s robotic arm, Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Microscopic Imager (MI), NASA officials said. Opportunity has moved along the north fork of one flow channel in Perseverance Valley. The rover spent several sols taking some photos — stereo shots, color panoramas and targeted 13-filter imaging — and traveling to selected surface targets for closer investigation. Earlier in the month, ground controllers prepared and executed a test of the Zero Degree Heater (ZDH) on the rover’s batteries. “Opportunity’s batteries have performed very well over the mission’s lifetime but are showing some signs of aging. [The] Martian environment is quite cold, and it was suspected that warming the battery during the recharge process may make the battery … more effective and [make it] degrade slower,” said a recent update posted by the mission team. Opportunity had never used the ZDH before, so caution was warranted, the rover’s handlers said. “Since it has never been turned on in flight, we wanted to be very cautious before using it operationally, and so a testing campaign was formulated. The first, original test in this campaign was to turn it on briefly, manually (as opposed to thermostatically), and in a controlled and recoverable (in the case of a fault) setting,” the update noted. “This test was executed in the morning of Sol 4964 (Jan. 10, 2018) and appears to have been successful.” Since touchdown on Mars, Opportunity’s total journey now stands at over 28 miles (45 kilometers). No human vehicle has traveled farther on the surface of another world.
Thanks to veteran space reporter Leonard David for this update on Opportunity.