NASA announced the end of the existing possibilities to re-establish contacts with its Mars Rover Opportunity and consequently declared the end of its mission. Oppy, as it’s affectionately called, interrupted communications after June 10, 2018 following the global storm that covered the planet Mars with a blanket of dust that prevented it from obtaining energy from its solar panels. This extraordinary mission ends in this sad way because caused by an extrnal cause after over 15 Earth’s years in which it collected a wealth of information on Mars.
The Mars Rover Opportunity landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, 20 days after its twin Spirit, for a 90-day primary mission. The first big test for the two rovers was the Martian winter, with little sun to power their solar panels and harsh temperatures. Surviving those conditions allowed NASA to extend their missions accumulating information on Mars including various evidence that when it was young on its surface liquid water flowed.
The Mars Rover Spirit continued its mission until 2010 and then fell victim to the Martian winter. NASA ended the chance to contact it again in May 2011 while Opportunity kept on working. The accumulated experience allowed to find for years the way to keep it alive even in the event of storms and during the Martian winters finding the right workarounds when some of its wheels broke up and its flash memory – of 256 MBytes that today are ridiculous but when it was designed they were a considerable capacity for a card of that type – started having problems with some cells.
In a mission that accumulated record after record, as listed in the bottom image (NASA/JPL-Caltech), the Mars Rover Opportunity kept on working despite its problems but the global storm that hit the planet Mars at the end of May 2018 was recognized from the beginning as a more serious threat than the previous ones. At NASA, they programmed a contingency plan to try to get Oppy to use only the energy needed to keep its temperatures high enough to function, but that wasn’t enough. The attempts to communicate continued for about eight months up to the last few days trying to transmit a huge number of commands over a range of frequencies to try all the contact possibilities.
When NASA announced a briefing about the Mars Rover Opportunity’s situation, the people who follow the mission took it for granted that the official announcement of its end would be coming. This tweet by Dr. Tanya Harrison left no hope.
Spent the evening at JPL as the last ever commands were sent to the Opportunity rover on #Mars. 💔
— Dr. Tanya Harrison (@tanyaofmars) February 13, 2019
There’s sadness for this end due to environmental causes but the Mars Rover Opportunity had an extraordinary success that went well beyond the best expectations. This, together with the discoveries it brought, catalyzed the support for further Martian missions with another more advanced rover, Curiosity, equipped with radioisotope generators that allowed it to survive the dark months, and more space probes. Oppy leaves a very important scientific legacy in the exploration of Mars.