The Mars Opportunity Rover, the resilient little spacecraft whose planned 90-day mission lasted 14 years — and which provided scientists with an indescribably vast wealth of photos and data from the red planet — is officially dead, NASA plans to announce on Wednesday.
As Ars Technica reports, NASA’s chief administrator Jim Bridenstine and the chief of the agency’s science division, Thomas Zurbuchen, will host a news conference later today, during which they’re expected to announce the end of the craft’s mission.
“Twin” spacecraft that exceeded their life expectancy
Opportunity landed on the red planet on January 25, 2004, as scientists back at Mission Control gleefully applauded. This was viewed as a triumph after other spacecraft had failed to survive entry into the Martian atmosphere. Like its “twin,” Spirit, which had launched a few months earlier, Opportunity was originally scheduled to undertake a 90-day mission.
It lasted 14 years. Spirit lasted six.
Both spacecrafts’ longevity was a source of pride to the engineers who built them and launched them towards their target. Unfortunately, however, all good things must come to an end. Spirit’s batteries gave out in 2010, while Opportunity got by on energy generated from its solar panels — that is, until last summer.
Done in by dust
By June of 2018, Opportunity — and most importantly, its solar panels — were covered in dust. Mars is prone to dust storms that last months and encircle the entire planet, and the 2018 Martian dust storms were no different. And when the dust had cleared, Opportunity was silent.
Sad news. Mars rover #Opportunity is probably done. Sometime tonight, a team @NASAJPL will make their final attempt to contact #Oppy. If they can't, they'll likely call the mission. Here's what happened… 1/ pic.twitter.com/oLgATexUHN
— Jacob Margolis (@JacobMargolis) February 12, 2019
NASA made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the spacecraft, getting only silence in return. And after months of trying, mission controllers were forced to admit that the craft’s time was up. On Tuesday night, they made what would be their final attempt to contact the spacecraft, getting no response.
Still a resounding success
By every measure, the Opportunity mission was a success, many times over.
Besides exceeding its planned lifespan 42 times over, the craft also sent back mountains of photos and data about the red planet, helping to unlock some of the planet’s secrets in the process.
For example, in one discovery, the craft found evidence of ancient hydrothermal vents that would have existed beneath a warm, shallow lake. In other discoveries, the craft found chemical signatures in Martian rocks that indicate that water had once been present on the planet.
Now, however, the spacecraft remains still in its last known location: a geological feature known as Perseverance Valley. Ironically, the site of the spacecraft’s grave was likely carved by flowing water — the very thing the craft was sent to Mars to investigate in the first place.