In 2004, a golf-cart-sized rover touched down in Meridiani Planum, a plain located 2 degrees south of the Martian equator. Its mission was supposed to last 90 days — but to everyone’s surprise, it remained operational for more than 5,000 days! The resilient Opportunity rover has provided invaluable scientific contributions and faced numerous perils along the years. Alas, all good things must come to an end. Last June, a huge dust storm wrapped around the planet, and Opportunity wasn’t spared. For months, NASA’s engineers had been struggling to regain contact with their rover, but to no avail. On February 13, Opportunity’s mission was finally declared complete.
“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,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “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 [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory], where the upcoming Mars 2020 rover is taking shape.”
Opportunity launched in 2003, along with its twin, the Spirit rover. The 15-year-long mission has led to many discoveries about Mars, showing that the planet was once wet and may have supported habitable conditions for microbial life. It was thanks to Opportunity that we now know that ancient Mars was a totally different place from the barren, desolate world that is the Red Planet today.
Opportunity was the longest lasting surface mission and farthest driving rover in human history.
For an expected 100 sols at Meridiani and 1km drive spec, she surpassed all expectations with 45.2km driven over 5111 sols.
Besides sampling Martian soil and rocks, Opportunity also provided unprecedented views of the Martian landscape, having captured 217,594 raw images. The image below is the last one that Opportunity’s panoramic camera captured before it signaled that things were getting too dark and was running low on power.
The mission finally came to an end after a dust storm covered the rover’s solar panels in June 2018. NASA engineers immediately placed the rover in hibernation mode in order to save energy, hoping the wind might eventually clean the panels. Something similar had happened in 2014, and everybody was rooting for a comeback. But after no fewer than 835 recovery commands, Opportunity remained silent. Ironically, the rover got stranded in Perseverance Valley.
According to NASA, even if the dust storm had not covered Opportunity, its days were numbered. The years of braving Martian weather had taken their toll on the rover, which had an already malfunctioning heater, internal clock, and flash memory.
While Opportunity’s mission is now officially over, its legacy carries on, with treasure troves of data keeping researchers busy for years to come. Meanwhile, the torch has been passed to the Curiosity rover and the stationary InSight lander.
It seems to me you lived your life like a rover in the wind never fading with the sunset when the dust set in.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.