After hundreds of unanswered calls, NASA mission engineers abandoned efforts to revive Opportunity, the space agency’s most durable Mars robot rover, which has been silent since a planetwide dust storm enveloped it in swirling grit this past June.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials announced an end to attempts to contact the $400 million Opportunity rover during a news briefing Wednesday at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which managed the 15-year mission. The gathering of agency managers, scientists and engineers there became a celebratory wake for the 400-pound robot. Designed for 90 days of operations, it had outlasted computer malfunctions, wind storms and agency budget battles to survive on Mars for more than 14 years.
It lasted longer than any other robot sent from Earth to another planet, agency officials said. Mission engineers made their last attempt to contact it Tuesday night.
“I learned this morning that our beloved Opportunity remains silent,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “I declare the Opportunity mission as complete. It’s an emotional moment.”
Launched as one in a pair of rovers in 2003, Opportunity touched down after a six-month voyage inside a giant impact crater just south of the Martian equator on terrain that scientists suspected might once have been a lake.
At about the same time, its identical robotic twin, called Spirit, landed on the opposite side of the planet. The Spirit rover, mired in a Martian sand trap, was shut down in 2011.
The Opportunity rover landed on Mars nearly 15 years ago, logging more than 28 miles and recording hundreds of thousands of extraterrestrial images. NASA lost communication with the rover during massive dust storm eight months ago and pronounced it dead on Tuesday. WSJ’s Jason Bellini reports. Illustration: NASA
Loaded with three spectrometers, three cameras, a microscope and a rock hammer, the Opportunity robot was a working field geologist, studying rocks and minerals in its path, including deposits of hematite and gypsum that could have formed in hot springs or running water. It spotted an iron-nickel meteorite near its own discarded heat shield—the first meteorite ever identified on another planet.
The rover also found evidence that persuaded scientists the arid plains of Mars had once been awash with acidic water, although it found no signs that life ever existed on the planet.
“This was not evidence of an evolutionary paradise, but it was a fascinating, fascinating environment,” said Steve Squyres, the project’s principal investigator at Cornell University.
Moving at a snail’s pace, the wheeled craft traveled a little more than 28 miles in starts and stops over the years, setting a record for extraterrestrial ground travel. In its methodical journey, its cameras recorded hundreds of thousands of images and transmitted them to eager researchers on Earth. They included breathtaking panoramas of Martian craters and a picture of a swirling Martian dust devil.
By the summer of 2018, Opportunity had reached a spot that NASA mission engineers dubbed Perseverance Valley. There last year, a massive dust storm overcame it, likely smothering the solar panels that power the craft in dust. The rover had weathered a previous storm in 2007, but this one overwhelmed it.
“The sky was so dark we could not see the sun and the solar panels couldn’t recharge the batteries,” said Abigail Fraeman, deputy project scientist, who was a high-school junior when the rover landed in 2004. “Those first images from Opportunity inspired me to become a planetary scientist.”
NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, which has been crawling across the surface of Mars since 2012, is plutonium-powered and wasn’t affected.
Agency engineers decided to call it quits now because the seasonal winds that might clear the dust from the rover’s solar panels are dying down for the year and the bitter cold of approaching winter is likely to severely damage the rover’s unheated batteries and electric systems.
“We were meant to wear these rovers out,” said John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover project manager. “We had no idea it would take this long. Even so, this is a hard day. Even though it is machine, we have to say goodbye.”
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