Photo courtesy of NASA
Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity (or “Oppy” as she was known to friends) was officially declared dead by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Wednesday, February 13. She died at the age of 15 in Perseverance Valley. According to NASA, she landed on Mars on January 24, 2004, just three weeks after her twin, Spirit, touched down on the opposite side of the planet. She outlived Spirit by eight years, who ceased communications with NASA in 2010. She is survived by Mars rover Curiosity, who landed in August of 2012, and InSight, a Mars lander that touched down on the Martian surface in November 2018.
Due to dust storms on Mars in the summer of 2010, solar-powered Opportunity found herself unable to communicate with Earth. NASA hoped that once the dust storm settled and the skies cleared, Opportunity would be able to wake up and continue her work. The last communication was received from Opportunity on June 10, 2018. NASA spent eight months repeatedly sending signals, hoping to hear back. A final message was sent from NASA on February 12, 2019, receiving no reply. According to Science Reporter Jacob Margolis, Opportunity’s last status received by NASA could be roughly translated to “my battery is low and it’s getting dark.”
Opportunity was an extremely accomplished rover. She was the longest-living robot on the surface of another planet, ever. Although originally planned to last only 90 days and cover just over 1000 yards, she roamed the surface of Mars for 15 years, covering more than the distance of a marathon. Her mission was to search for signs of ancient life. At her landing site, Opportunity found definitive signs that water had existed on the Martian surface in the past through hematite, a mineral that forms in water. According to NASA, she set a one-day Mars driving record on March 20, 2005, when she traveled more than 700 feet. She sent back 217,594 raw images, including 15 360-degree color panoramas.
Because Opportunity’s mission lasted so much longer than expected, NASA has had a continuous presence on Mars for most of the century, says the New York Times. This presence is unlikely to end, with Curiosity and InSight still alive and well and plans to launch a new Mars rover in July 2020.