NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover is dead after nearly 15 years on the red planet. Take a look back at its unlikely journey.

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Wikipedia

  • NASA’s Opportunity rover is officially dead and the mission is over, the agency said Wednesday.
  • The rover stopped communicating in June 2018 during a brutal Martian dust storm, but NASA didn’t give up hope that the machine might re-connect after the dust settled and the rover gathered solar power.
  • But finally, after one last failed attempt to call Opportunity on Tuesday, NASA has declared the mission officially over.
  • Still, Opportunity’s near 15-year stint on Mars was impressive for a robot designed to last only months.
  • Here are a few of Opportunity’s most noteworthy accomplishments.

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover was built to last just 90 Martian sols, or 92 Earth days. But the scrappy machine shocked engineers by surviving far longer than that. The rover withstood nearly 15 years of tough conditions on Mars before finally succumbing to a violent dust storm that shook the Martian globe last June.

NASA made one last unsuccessful attempt to phone Opportunity on Tuesday before declaring the mission officially over.

“When this little rover landed, the objective was to have it be able to move 1,100 yards and survive for 90 days on Mars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Wednesday. “Instead here we are, 14 years later, after 28 miles of travel, and we get to celebrate the end of this mission.”

Opportunity launched toward Mars on July 7, 2003 and landed there on January 25, 2004. Engineers at NASA did not expected the solar-powered machine to weather a single Martian winter; but in the end, the golf-cart-sized rover managed to crawl more than a marathon’s distance on the red planet.

After Mars endured a global dust storm last summer that covered the planet in red dirt, the resulting darkness made it too tough for Opportunity to capture much-needed solar power. NASA hasn’t heard a peep from the golf-cart sized rover since it was put into a nap in safe mode during the big storm. It turned out to be the robot’s final slumber.

Here’s a look back at what the Opportunity rover accomplished during its unlikely journey on Mars.


Opportunity was one of two six-wheeled rovers that NASA launched to Mars in 2003. Its twin, Spirit, left Earth on June 10, followed by Opportunity on July 7.

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Opportunity at NASA Kennedy Space Center in April 2003 during final processing of the spacecraft.
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NASA / JPL

Spirit survived on Mars for more than six years.


Opportunity blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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A Delta II Heavy launch vehicle carrying the rover Opportunity takes off from Launch Complex 17-B, at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
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NASA

Scientists hoped the twin rovers would help them figure out whether Mars might have once been a place where life could exist.


It took the two rovers more than six months to fly the roughly 283 million miles to Mars.

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Opportunity’s lander is shown deflated after the vehicle rolled off. It served as a fluffy airbag when the rover landed on Mars.
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NASA / JPL / Cornell

Opportunity arrived on Mars on January 25, 2004, and was drop-bounced onto the ground inside of a kind of heavy-duty bubble wrap.


The rover’s heat shield protected the machine as it whizzed through the Martian atmosphere, helping Opportunity land safely.

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The remains of Opportunity’s heat shield after landing.
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NASA / JPL-Cornell

The rover then disembarked and drove off in search of adventure.


Opportunity wasn’t speedy: it logged an average of roughly two miles of exploration on Mars per year.

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Opportunity’s rear hazard-identification camera captured a shot of the empty lander that carried the rover 283 million miles to Mars.
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NASA/JPL

The rover traveled up to about 130 feet each Martian day, according to NASA.


Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California tried to simulate some of the tough driving conditions that the rovers would face on Mars before they launched.

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Engineers check how a test rover moves in material meant to simulate difficult Martian driving conditions.
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NASA / JPL

The Spirit rover’s end came after it got caught in some soft soil and lost contact with NASA in 2010.


The instruments on the Opportunity rover included cameras, spectrometers that studied chemicals and minerals, a rock grinder, and a brush for sweeping dust off rocks.

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Opportunity’s arm in hover-stow position.
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NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA called Opportunity a “a golf-cart-size robotic field geologist.”

The rover’s robotic arm, shown above in its stow position, was designed to dispatch four different kinds of tools that the machine used to inspect its surroundings. But at least two instruments stopped working before Opportunity’s final demise, and the robotic arm got creaky and old.


Some of the first things Opportunity spotted on Mars were these small, round balls that NASA nicknamed “blueberries.”

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The area shown is 1.2 inches across.
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NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / USGS

Opportunity caught a glimpse of these hematite-rich spherules on the Martian surface near the Fram Crater in April 2004.

Their round shape gave scientists good evidence there was probably water on Mars at some point.


Opportunity spent most of its time on Mars examining rock layers in craters. From 2011 to the end of its life in 2018, the rover explored the area around the Endeavor Crater, which is 14 miles wide and at least 3.6 billion years old.

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The view is in enhanced colors, which highlight things that aren’t visible to the human eye.
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NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / Arizona State

Opportunity passed by the 10-million-year-old Orion crater, shown above, on April 26, 2017. Orion sits on the western rim of the Endeavor Crater and is just 90 feet wide.

Opportunity captured this panorama of pictures using three kinds of light filters to capture near-infrared, green, and violet light. The image has been enhanced so that we can see differences in the surface material on Mars more clearly.

Scientists think the rocks pictured here hint that Mars might have harbored life long ago, since there are signs that water moved through rocky cracks.


The rover explored Mars’ Endurance crater from May to December 2004.

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Endurance Crater is about the length of 1.5 football fields.
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NASA / JPL

The rover’s front hazard avoidance camera, which took this shot, looked out for danger ahead.


Engineers back on Earth rehearsed moves the rover might make in the Endurance crater, hoping to avoid disaster.

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Engineers rehearsed the June 8, 2004 drive into Endurance.
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NASA / JPL

Opportunity ventured down and examined the crater’s steep, rocky walls for clues about the planet’s past.


The rover discovered that water had flowed on the planet on more than one occasion.

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NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity used its panoramic camera to record this view from the east rim of Endeavor Crater on the 2,407th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s work on Mars on October 31, 2010. The view is presented in false color to make differences in surface materials more visible.
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Scientists at NASA also found minerals like jarosite and hematite there, which crop up in wet environments.


The rover hovered at the edge of Erebus Crater in November and December 2005. This image shows a bird’s eye view of Opportunity projected from the rover’s panoramic cameras. Opportunity is the bright spot in the middle — its solar panels glint in the sun.

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Opportunity was equipped with a “pancam” on top.
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NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell

The “pancam” was actually two digital cameras that worked like 360-degree viewing eyes. The device was mounted on poles that could raise the eyes up over 4 feet, which is how the rover captured this view.

In this image, the rover is surrounded by rocks and sand dunes. The Martian soil is not actually blue – the false-color image serves to emphasize some features of the land.


Opportunity saddled up to the Victoria crater, which is five times wider than the Endurance crater, on September 26, 2006. In this image, the rover appears as a tiny speck on the rim.

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Opportunity looked tiny on the edge of the half-mile-wide Victoria Crater.
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NASA/JPL-Caltech

This picture was not taken by the rover – it’s a shot from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) that’s been orbiting Mars and taking super high-resolution photos of the planet since 2006.


In the Victoria Crater, Opportunity spied this promontory called Cape Verde on October 20, 2007.

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The photo was taken over a month after the rover began its descent into the crater.
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NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell

Once inside the half-mile-wide crater, Opportunity spent nearly a year examining ancient rock layers before climbing out in August 2008.


Opportunity became something of a Mars rock expert after repeatedly drilling into the planet’s surface to analyze chemicals inside.

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Opportunity examined cracks and coatings on Mars rocks.
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NASA / JPL / Cornell

“The reddish color around the holes is from iron-rich dust produced during the grinding operation,” NASA said of this image.


Between the dust storms and the cold, dark winters, Mars is a tough place to be a solar-powered machine. By 2014, Opportunity’s solar panels looked much browner and dustier than they did when the rover landed.

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Side-by-side images of the Opportunity rover when it first landed on Mars in 2004 (left), and ten years later in 2014 (right).
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NASA

But Opportunity kept chugging along for four more years.


In 2015, NASA announced that the rover had traveled a marathon’s worth of miles on Mars: 26.2 miles over 11 years and two months.

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Images from Opportunity’s front and rear hazard-avoidance cameras showed the sharp rocks that can do a number on tires and wheels.
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NASA / JPL-Caltech

That’s the farthest any Earthly machine has ever traveled on another world.

“This mission isn’t about setting distance records, of course; it’s about making scientific discoveries on Mars and inspiring future explorers to achieve even more,” Opportunity mission leader Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, said of the feat in 2015. “Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool.”


In total, Opportunity witnessed 5,111 Martian days, or “sols,” on the red planet.

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The rover answered lingering questions about whether Mars once held water. Researchers are now certain that water once flowed on the red planet, though it may have been very acidic. (This image is presented in false color, which enhances Opportunity’s wheel tracks.)
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

That’s impressive for a machine that was expected to last just 90 sols.


In the end, a global dust storm rendered Opportunity’s solar panels useless, and the rover went to sleep.

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Simulated images show what NASA’s Opportunity rover saw over time as a global dust storm on Mars blotted out the sun in June 2018.
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

“This is the worst storm Opportunity has ever seen,” Squyres told the Planetary Society during the June storm.

NASA made what would turn out to be its final contact with the rover on June 10, 2018. The space agency listened intently for more than eight months after that, searching for signs that Opportunity might wake up again.

In the end, NASA sent over 1,000 commands trying to re-establish contact. But with Opportunity’s batteries likely drained, the rover wasn’t able to wake from the storm and answer the calls.

“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,” NASA Mars Exploration Rover project manager John Callas said.


Despite Opportunity’s death, NASA’s Mars exploration continues. The agency’s solar-powered InSight lander touched down successfully in November, and will be checking for Mars quakes, the Martian version of earthquakes.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech

In addition, InSight will take the planet’s temperature and measure its size. Scientists at NASA say this work is kind of like giving the red planet a “checkup.”


InSight doesn’t move the way Opportunity did, but the Curiosity rover is still cruising around on Mars. And soon, a new set of wheels may arrive: the Mars 2020 rover.

Curiosity has been on the red planet since 2012.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is set to launch in the summer of 2020, and will examine Martian rocks for signs of ancient life.

Some of those rock samples might someday return to Earth, where human scientists could examine them, instead of leaving the work to robots.