Drive along with the Opportunity rover and hear the voices of scientists and engineers behind the mission. Designed to run for 90 days, the exploration spanned more than 15 years from 2004 to 2019. Along the way, it discovered definitive proof of liquid water on ancient Mars and set the off-world driving record.
On Tuesday (February 13, 2019) NASA announced that its Mars Opportunity rover mission – one of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration – was at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars.
The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. 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 on Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10, 2018.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement:
It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars. And when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration.
Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 km) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – Perseverance Valley.
The final transmission ended a multifaceted, eight-month recovery strategy in an attempt to compel the rover to communicate. John Callas, manager of the Mars Exploration Rover project at JPL, said in a statement:
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.
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 103-mile-wide (166-km-wide) Gusev Crater on the other side of Mars. Spirit logged almost 5 miles (8 km) before its mission wrapped up in May 2011.
From the day Opportunity landed, a team of mission engineers, rover drivers and scientists 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 384-pound (174-kilogram) Martian explorer could maneuver around and, at times, over rocks and boulders, climb gravel-strewn slopes as steep as 32 degrees (an off-Earth record), probe crater floors, summit hills and traverse possible dry riverbeds. Its final venture brought it to the western limb of Perseverance Valley.
More Opportunity Achievements
– Set a one-day Mars driving record March 20, 2005, when it traveled 721 feet (220 meters).
– Returned more than 217,000 images, including 15 360-degree color panoramas.
– Exposed the surfaces of 52 rocks to reveal fresh mineral surfaces for analysis and cleared 72 additional targets with a brush to prepare them for inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager.
– Found hematite, a mineral that forms in water, at its landing site.
– Discovered strong indications at Endeavour Crater of the action of ancient water similar to the drinkable water of a pond or lake on Earth.
Steve Squyres, the scientific principal Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers, speaks about the mission and its significance.
All of the off-roading and on-location scientific analyses were in service of the Mars Exploration Rovers’ primary objective: To seek out historical evidence of the red planet’s climate and water at sites where conditions may once have been favorable for life. Because liquid water is required for life as we know it, Opportunity’s discoveries implied that conditions at Meridiani Planum may have been habitable for some period of time in Martian history. Steve Squyres is principal investigator of the rovers’ science payload at Cornell University. He said:
From the get-go, Opportunity delivered on our search for evidence regarding water. And when you combine the discoveries of Opportunity and Spirit, they showed us that ancient Mars was a very different place from Mars today, which is a cold, dry, desolate world. But if you look to its ancient past, you find compelling evidence for liquid water below the surface and liquid water at the surface.
All those accomplishments were not without the occasional extraterrestrial impediment. In 2005 alone, Opportunity lost steering to one of its front wheels, a stuck heater threatened to severely limit the rover’s available power, and a Martian sand ripple almost trapped it for good. Two years later, a two-month dust storm imperiled the rover before relenting. In 2015, Opportunity lost use of its 256-megabyte flash memory and, in 2017, it lost steering to its other front wheel.
Each time the rover faced an obstacle, Opportunity’s team on Earth found and implemented a solution that enabled the rover to bounce back. However, the massive dust storm that took shape in the summer of 2018 proved too much for history’s most senior Mars explorer.
Mars exploration continues. NASA’s InSight lander, which touched down on November 26, 2018, is just beginning its scientific investigations. The Curiosity rover has been exploring Gale Crater for more than six years. And, 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.
Bottom line: On February 13, 2019, NASA’s Opportunity rover ended its 15-year mission on Mars.
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