The record-breaking 15-year-long Mars mission of NASA’s Opportunity rover was declared over after the US space agency failed to contact the robotic explorer for over eight months. The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June last year.
After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.
Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,000 metres, Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover travelled more than 45 kilometres by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars — Perseverance Valley.
“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,” said Zurbuchen.
The final transmission, sent via the 70-metre Mars Station antenna at NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Complex in California, ended a multifaceted, eight-month recovery strategy in an attempt to compel the rover to communicate.
“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,” said John Callas, manager of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project at JPL.
Opportunity landed in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars on January 24, 2004, seven months after its launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Its twin rover, Spirit, landed 20 days earlier in the 166-kilometre-wide Gusev Crater on the other side of Mars. Spirit logged almost eight kilometres before its mission wrapped up in May 2011.
From the day Opportunity landed, the mission team on Earth collaborated to overcome challenges and get the rover from one geologic site on Mars to the next. They plotted workable avenues over rugged terrain so that the 174 kilogramme Martian explorer could manoeuvre around and, at times, over rocks and boulders, climb gravel-strewn slopes as steep as 32-degrees, probe crater floors, summit hills and traverse possible dry riverbeds.
Its final venture brought it to the western limb of Perseverance Valley. “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.
Mars exploration continues unabated. NASA’s InSight lander, which touched down on November 26, is just beginning its scientific investigations. The Curiosity rover has been exploring Gale Crater for more than six years. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover both will launch in July 2020, becoming the first rover missions designed to seek signs of past microbial life on the Red Planet.