After 15 years and a journey of over 140 million miles, NASA said Wednesday that the Cornell-led Opportunity Rover had reached its final resting place: a dusty, frigid valley on Mars.
From its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., NASA officially declared the rover dead after a months-long effort to regain communication with it proved fruitless.
Mars’ Perseverance Valley, from where Opportunity sent its last update, was bombarded by a massive dust storm last summer, choking out both the sky and communication between NASA and the rover. The last transmission reached Earth on June 10, 2018.
In the eight months since then, NASA sent over a thousand messages to Opportunity. None received a response.
“I always felt that the only two acceptable ways for a mission like this to end would be either we wear a rover out …. [or] Mars just reaches out and kills it,” Prof. Steven Squyres ’78 Ph.D. ’81, the James A. Weeks Professor of physical sciences and principal investigator of two Mars rover missions, told The Sun last fall after NASA lost contact.
Opportunity’s role was that of a historian, trawling Mars’ surface for clues into its past. Primarily, Squyres said, the rover was seeking signs that Mars had once been warmer or more habitable.
Today, Martian nights can be as frigid as minus 140 degrees Celsius, temperatures that can wreak havoc on fine-tuned machinery.
“It’s not low power that would kill a vehicle,” Squyres said in September, after eight months of silence from the rover. “It’s low temperature.”
The 400-pound rover was only designed to last 90 days on the red planet’s surface, but it continued to collect data and transmit pictures and information back to Earth for fourteen and a half years.
“I am now teaching adults, college students, who cannot remember a time when there wasn’t a rover on Mars,” Squyres said last fall.
Squyres let students in his spring class — Astronomy 1102: Our Solar System — in on the impending end of the program over a week before NASA’s official announcement, said Yizhou Yu ’20, who is in the class. He made sure to tell them “not to report anything” until the official announcement was made, Yu said.
Squyres was in Pasadena on Wednesday when the end of the mission was announced, where he recalled the challenges and triumphs of Opportunity’s two missions.
The first mission, he told the crowd, was to look for signs of water near the landing site. This mission lasted nine years, searching the surrounding rocks for imprints and evidence of flowing liquid, which the rover found and photographed.
“We were running around saying ‘water on Mars, water on Mars,’” Squyres said. “It was sulfuric acid on Mars. This was not evidence of an evolutionary paradigm.”
After team members concluded that they had done everything they could at the first site, Squyres said they made a difficult decision to direct the rover on a long, lonely journey around the planet.
“What we could have done, I suppose, was just kind of noodle around on the plains until the wheels fell off,” he said. “But it didn’t feel like the right thing to do.”
After four and a half years of driving, Opportunity made it to a new crater, where it found what humans back on Earth hoped it would.
“We were able, at the rim of Endeavor crater, to find rocks that were probably the oldest observed by either one of the rovers,” he said. “Rocks that even predated the formation of Endeavor crater. And those told the story of water coursing through the rocks, but with a neutral pH. It was water you could drink.”
Opportunity’s twin rover, Spirit, also far outlived expectations as it scoured different sectors of Mars for the same signs of life. That rover was retired in 2011 after scientists lost communication with it the previous year.
“We just wore Spirit out,” Squyres told The Sun in the fall. “It ran for six years and we did some pretty insane, pretty aggressive things with it.”
NASA’s Mars exploration lives on after Opportunity with the Curiosity rover, which launched in 2011 and landed in August 2012. NASA also plans to launch another rover in 2020.
“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,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine M.B.A. ’09 said in Pasadena. NASA has said it hopes to launch a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.
Opportunity has paved the way for other missions and left an impression on the public deeper than its six treaded wheels’ tracks on Mars.
“I, in my lifetime, have seen the entire Space Age,” Squyres said last fall. “The first time humanity sent anything into space was 1957. I was born in 1956.”
“That is the future of exploration,” he continued. “It’s always uncertain. It’s always been uncertain.”