It looks like lights out for Opportunity, one of NASA’s most successful missions of all time.
The craft, which arrived at the Red Planet in July 2004, has been out of communication since last summer. Many months’ worth of attempts to contact the craft failed. Today, NASA is officially saying goodbye to the craft that, for years and years, couldn’t be stopped. At 2 p.m. Eastern, the space agency will give a press conference on the rover and is expected to say that the last attempts to reach it have failed.
Opportunity had been roving the surface of Mars for 15 years before the ominous, giant global dust storm that sealed its demise came along. This wasn’t the first time a dust storm had made Oppy go silent. But a subsequent “cleaning” event—what NASA calls it when weather conditions clear, exposing the solar panels and allowing the craft to recharge—never happened. (The Curiosity rover, by contrast, uses a plutonium-powered device called a radioisotope thermoelectric generator as a power source.)
It may seem hard to believe given NASA’s string of successful Mars missions, but the first successful rover didn’t deploy until 1997. That’s when the Sojourner craft arrived at Mars, roving for 83 Martian days on what was intended to be a seven-day test mission.
NASA followed Sojourner up in 2003 with two crafts—Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit was launched first, leaving Earth in June 2003 and arriving in January 2004. Like its sister craft, Spirit vastly outperformed its intended 90-day mission, returning science for nearly six years before becoming permanently stuck by a rock. (Driving vehicles on other planets is really, really hard when you can’t be there in person.)
But even with its sibling gone, Opportunity pressed on. Following its initial landing in 2004, the craft found evidence of past water on Mars, accumulating evidence of a rich, potentially habitable past on Mars. And aside from a few major storms that got in the way, the rover never stopped returning science data. If you could stand on the surface of Mars right now and glance upon Opportunity, you’d find that its instruments were deployed just days before last contact, ready to do science.
While some NASA spacecraft have endured for longer than 15 years, those are orbiter or flyby missions—they’re not encountering the sheer number of hazards Opportunity did on the ground. While the Voyager missions pressed on even 42 years after launch, they never had to sweep through a global dust storm or survive hazardous terrain.
So while Opportunity may be gone, it leaves behind an incredible legacy. It’s been suggested by some on the team that Curiosity may not ever get the same life span, and Mars 2020 (you can guess when NASA intends to launch it) is a lot like an upgraded Curiosity.
We’re not done exploring Mars just because this is the end of the line for Opportunity. There are still several orbiters around the planet including MAVEN, Mars Odyssey, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. On the surface, there’s Curiosity and the recently arrived Mars InSight, which will dig underground on Mars in search of seismic activity. In fact, InSight just deployed its Mole instrument this week. Mars 2020 and a potential orbiter mission are in the works.
And Oppy’s discoveries will guide the future of Martian exploration. Other landers found only patchy evidence of the past life of Mars, but Opportunity unlocked ancient lake beds and truly uncanny evidence for a wet and warm past on the Red Planet. This, in turn, has fueled what we look for on Mars—which is to say, water and clues to if life could ever have arisen on Mars.
For instance, MAVEN is unlocking the history of the atmosphere and why a once-thick atmosphere went away. Curiosity is exploring an ancient lake bed. Odyssey and MRO look for seasonal deposits of water on Mars, while InSight will study underground, looking for potential signs of unexpected heat and seismic activity that could show that Mars is still alive.
So while today may be an official goodbye to Opportunity, it lives on in its legacy that informs our exploration of Mars every day. May we all be so lucky to have such a rich legacy. Goodnight, rover. You’ve served us better than we could ever have hoped for.