Eight months ago, NASA lost contact with the Opportunity rover on Mars, which had been exploring the planet’s surface since 2004. The solar-powered rover got trapped in a massive dust storm, which blotted out the sun, its source of energy. And after the storm cleared, Opportunity — affectionately called “Oppy” — didn’t “wake” back up.
NASA announced Wednesday that it will not be hearing from the robot ever again.
“We have made every reasonable engineering effort to try to recover Opportunity and have determined that the likelihood of receiving a signal is far too low to continue recovery efforts,” John Callas, the manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project, said in a press statement.
At The Verge, Loren Grush explains that the dust storm either left too thick a layer of debris on the solar panel or messed up the rover’s internal clock. “Now, Opportunity’s demise is all but certain, as the rover is about to enter Martian winter,” Grush writes. It can’t survive temperatures more extreme than minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit without electric heaters.
Opportunity lasted 14 years in operation on the surface of Mars, thanks to some engineering tricks like driving the rover backward to compensate for a faulty wheel. That’s the longest amount of time any human-built robot has spent exploring another world. And it’s amazing because Opportunity was only designed with a 90-day mission in mind. Opportunity’s “twin,” a rover named Spirit, which also landed in 2004, stopped operating in 2010.
Opportunity (and Spirit) made some stunning discoveries, including the presence of gypsum, which is formed from mineral-rich water and suggests Mars’s surface once had much more water. It also discovered the mineral hematite on the surface, another sign the planet had a wetter past. Spirit found evidence (in the form of chemicals in rocks) that Mars’s atmosphere was once thicker, possibly indicating the planet used to be more hospitable to life.
Opportunity got an amazing perspective of the Martian surface, sending us back many incredible photos of its geology. It even spotted the Martian version of a solar eclipse, as the planet’s moons, Deimos and Phobos, traversed the sun. Here’s Phobos transiting on September 20, 2012.
And, perhaps most importantly, Spirit and Opportunity taught NASA engineers how to better land and operate rovers on Mars. Those lessons will serve future generations of scientists, and perhaps human explorers.
In its time on Mars, Opportunity traveled more than 28 miles, just over a marathon, and roughly the distance between Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland. Here’s the map of its journey overlaid on maps of DC and New York — for some perspective.
And here’s what it saw on its journey, including a very cool glimpse at a Martian solar eclipse.