WASHINGTON – NASA announced on Wednesday that the wheeled robot Opportunity that explored part of the surface of the Red Planet up close and personal has finally bitten the Martian dust after operating there for some 15 years, during which time it discovered signs of water.
According to scientists at the US space agency, the rover did not survive an enormous dust storm last summer, when communication with it was lost and never recovered despite months of trying.
“With a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude, I declare the Opportunity mission is complete,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told scientists and staffers gathered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California, where the rover was assembled and the mission managed.
Thus ends a mission that lasted far longer than scientists had ever expected, given that the rover was originally designed to operate on the Martian surface for just three months, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
“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,” said Bridenstine, who has headed NASA since April 2018 after being named to the post by President Donald Trump.
“Here’s ... an important thing to remember,” Bridenstine told the Associated Press. “There are a lot more missions to be done and there are a lot more discoveries to be made. And while it is sad that we move from one mission to the next, it’s really all part of one big objective.”
The six-wheeled, golf-cart-sized Opportunity provided Earth-bound scientists with a close-up view of Mars as it had never been seen before, including finding the first traces of water there – a significant discovery, given that water is necessary for “life as we know it.”
Even after contact was lost with Opportunity amid the June dust storm, NASA engineers had remained hopeful that when the storm had abated, the rover could recharge its solar-powered batteries and resume its mission.
But it was not to be and on Wednesday, NASA officially declared the rover to be defunct and its mission over, after it had reconnoitered some 28 miles of the Martian surface climbing in and out of craters, investigating interesting rocks, photographing dust devils whirling in the thin atmosphere and sending back to Earth thousands and thousands of photographs and measurements.
All this after traveling 300 million miles through space and making a pinpoint landing right on target.
Because Opportunity and its twin rover Spirit – which “died” in 2010 – survived far longer than anticipated, NASA has had a continuous robotic presence on the fourth planet from the Sun for more than 15 years after both landed there in 2004.
But on Tuesday night, the space agency’s control center sent its last of more than 1,000 “wake-up” calls to Opportunity and – once again – received no response, whereupon it officially concluded that the rover had died and declared that its mission had come to an end.