A Eulogy for the (Likely) Lost Opportunity Rover

The Mars Opportunity rover on Mars may be dead on the Martian surface, a victim of a sand storm that took place months ago, NASA reports. In June of 2018, a massive dust storm enveloped Opportunity, silencing the vehicle. For months, scientists and other people around the world held out hopes that the rover would once again communicate with the Earth. But, it appears those hopes are now fading.

In the time since Opportunity has gone incommunicado, mission engineers have sent over 600 commands to the spacecraft, attempting to wake it from its slumber.

“No signal from Opportunity has been heard since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018) during the historic global dust storm. Opportunity likely experienced a low-power fault, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault. The team is continuing to listen for the rover over a broad range of times, frequencies and polarizations using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver,” NASA reported on their Opportunity Updates web page.

An artist’s conception of the Opportunity rover exploring the surface of Mars. Image credit: NASA

If this truly is the end for Opportunity, then this hardy spacecraft should be remembered as “The Little Rover that Could,” far exceeding its original mission, and the hopes of nearly all mission personnel.

Launched from Earth on July 7, 2003 on a planned 90-day mission on Mars, Opportunity touched down on the Red Planet on January 24, 2004. The spacecraft returned its first data from the Martian surface the following day.

Engineers designed Opportunity to travel a total of just over 1,000 meters (3,330 feet) during its exploration of Mars. By February 2018, the vehicle had logged more than 45 kilometers (28 miles) traversing the Martian landscape.

An image showing the journey of Opportunity during its exploration of Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS

During its time on Mars, Opportunity provided a wealth of scientific discoveries. Hematite, a mineral created in the presence of water here on Earth, provided the best evidence yet for ancient seas on Mars. Analysis of the find revealed these bodies of water were likely highly-acidic, reducing the chances that ancient life formed in these alien seas.

Clays seen on Mars by Opportunity in a rock on Mars named Esperance. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State University

Further evidence of now-lost sea beds on Mars was found when Opportunity discovered veins of brightly-colored gypsum at the rim of Endeavor Crater. This finding provided evidence that calcium in the gypsum was deposited as water seeped up though cracks in the surface of Mars. Clay was also seen at the crater by instruments aboard Opportunity, suggesting the ancient water at this site was neither acidic nor alkaline, adding to the chances that life may have once existed on Mars.

“We’re finding more places where Mars reveals a warmer and wetter planet in its history. This gives us greater incentive to continue seeking evidence of past life on Mars,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.

Opportunity explored more than 100 craters on Mars, teaching us about the geology of these structures, as well as how they form and erode over time. The rover found that not only had Mars moved from wetter to drier conditions, but that this process may have gone back-and-forth several times, alternating between radically different climates.

The rover also found unusual iron-rich meteorites on the surface of Mars, surprising geologists. The first of these, about the size of a basketball, was discovered near the location where debris from the heat shield from Opportunity landed on the planet, providing the name Heat Shield Rock. Geologists note it resembles a smaller version of the meteorite that formed Meteorite Crater in Arizona. The second, dubbed Block Island, is a 60 centimeter (two-foot) wide relic, the largest ever found on Mars.

An image of the iron-rich meteorite, Block Island, found on Mars by the Opportunity Rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

In March 2016, Opportunity climbed the steepest slope ever ascended by a rover on Mars — 32 degrees — as it approached the edge of Knudsen Ridge.

This intrepid rover also assisted future missions, studying the clouds and atmosphere of Mars, providing engineers with information they can utilize to better design solar panels and electrical systems for the Mars landers of tomorrow.

On June 10, 2018, Opportunity sent its last message to Earth, as the vehicle sat poised on the western edge of Perseverance crater. As a massive dust storm fell over the rover, mission engineers lost contact with the rover. The storm, first seen on May 30, grew in size until it encircled the planet, likely covering the solar panels that powered Opportunity with sand. After the tempest cleared, Opportunity remained quiet, never to be heard from again.

In 2014, the solar panels of Opportunity were covered in sand by a Martian storm (left). However, winds came along, clearing off the solar panels, restoring power (right). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State University

Fans of science around the world held their collective breaths as NASA spent months attempting to re-establish communications with the vehicle. However, those efforts appear to have fallen on deaf ears, as Opportunity is now likely dead on the surface of Mars.

Spirit, the twin spacecraft to Opportunity, landed on the opposite side of Mars as Opportunity in 2004, as part of the Mars Exploration Rover program. Spirit provided data on Martian geology and climate until it succumbed to the harsh conditions of Mars in 2011.

“The extended journeys taken by the two rovers across the surface of Mars has allowed the science community to continue to uncover discoveries that will enable new investigations of the red planet far into the future.” said Mary Cleave of NASA.

Lasting more than 15 years in the exploration of the history, geology, and climate of Mars, this golf-cart-sized spacecraft named Opportunity produced science that will last a lifetime.

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