What a great article from Yaron Steinbuch of the New York Post. NASA has phenomenal success with a Mars rover that was supposed to last 3 months in exploration…it lasted 15 years!
NASA’s indomitable Mars rover Opportunity — which was built to operate for just three months but managed to explore the Red Planet for years and make momentous discoveries, such as finding evidence of past Martian surface water — was declared officially dead Wednesday. It was 15.
The space agency announced that the six-wheeled explorer — which has not been heard from since a storm last June — had not responded to a last-ditch effort on Tuesday to contact it and officials at the space agency announced that they now believe the legendary space probe is no longer operational.
“I learned this morning that we had not heard back,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a press conference, Cnet.com reported.
“I am standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude that I declare the opportunity mission as complete,” he added.
The plucky Opportunity outlived its twin, the Spirit rover, by several years and helped gather critical evidence that ancient Mars might have been hospitable to life.
The two lumbering vehicles landed on opposite sides of the planet in 2004 for a mission that was meant to last a mere 90 days.
Opportunity remained sprightly up until eight months ago, when it was finally doomed by a vicious dust storm on Perseverance Valley. Flight controllers sent more than 1,000 recovery commands to Opportunity – but got nothing in return.
With project costs reaching about $500,000 a month, NASA decided there was no point in continuing and it became clear the rover was about to be declared dead.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who broke the news to team members gathered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said that although some people were “a little choked up,” the general mood was one of celebration.
Rolling along until communication ceased last June, it roamed a record 28.06 miles on Mars and worked longer than any other lander in the known universe.
Its greatest achievement was discovering, along with its partner, evidence that water flowed on the ancient Martian surface and that the planet might have been capable of sustaining microbial life.
Opportunity, which was launched on July 7, 2003, and landed in Meridiani Planum on Jan. 25, 2004, made several landmark discoveries on Mars.
It stumbled upon the first meteorite found on another planet, revealing that Meridiani Planum was once immersed in water, studied more than 100 impact craters and sent home stunning panoramas of a planet almost 34 million miles from Earth.
In 2011, it reached Endeavour, a 13.7-mile-wide impact crater and discovered a bright mineral vein of gypsum.
At the time, mission scientist Steve Squyres said “this tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock,” according to Cnet.com
Opportunity was the fifth of eight spacecraft to successfully land on Mars so far, all belonging to NASA.
Spirit became stuck in a sand trap in 2009 and NASA officially announced its mission complete in 2011.
Only two remain working: the nuclear-powered Curiosity, which has been prowling around since 2012, and the recently arrived InSight, which this week placed a heat-sensing, self-hammering probe on the surface to dig deep into the planet like a mole.
Three more landers — from the US, China and Europe — are due to launch next year.
Bridenstine said the overriding goal is to search for evidence of past or even present microbial life on Mars and find possible locations to send astronauts — perhaps in the 2030s.
“Here’s, I think, an important thing to remember,” Bridenstine said. “There are a lot more missions to be done and there are a lot more discoveries to be made. And while it is sad that we move from one mission to the next, it’s really all part of one big objective.”
- Yaron Steinbuch