After 15 Years, NASA Officially Ends Opportunity Mission on Mars

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NASA’s Opportunity rover far exceeded all expectations, but it’s finally time to say goodbye. The agency confirmed today that the mission has officially ended. After months of trying to make contact with Opportunity following a planet-wide dust storm, NASA is calling it quits. This is not a time to be sad, though. Opportunity was only designed to operate for 90 Martian days, but it lasted almost 15 years (over 5,000 Martian days) and reshaped our understanding of the red planet along the way.

Opportunity landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, bouncing across the surface in an inflatable airbag. NASA designed Opportunity (and its sibling rover Spirit) with solar panels to recharge its onboard batteries. Unfortunately, a global dust storm that started in June 2018 was too much for the aging rover, which lost power early in the storm. Dust storms are common on Mars, but a global event like the one we saw in 2018 only happens every few years.

NASA received a ping from the rover on June 10th, 2018 as it waited in low-power mode. That was the last time the team had any communication with Opportunity. NASA tried for months to regain contact, finally sending the last message from the Mars Station antenna at NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Complex in California on October 12th.

Opportunity started out in Eagle crater where it discovered hematite “blueberries,” the first strong evidence for water on ancient Mars. After that, it headed to Endurance crater where it drove down the side and studied the strata of Mars. Then, it was on to Victoria crater, and from there Opportunity traveled through Marathon Valley, so named because that’s where the rover crossed the “marathon” mark of 26.2 miles. Finally, Opportunity headed into Perseverance Valley, where the 2018 dust storm overtook the robot. That valley will be Opportunity’s eternal resting place.

During its time on Mars, the plucky little rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers). NASA was initially hopeful the mission would manage a single kilometer in its short lifespan. Covering all that distance taught NASA a great deal about how to build rovers for Mars. The windswept dunes of the planet can be hazardous — Spirit’s mission ended when it became hopelessly stuck. Opportunity almost shared its fate several years into its journey but managed to get unstuck. After that, NASA knew to approach these ripples to avoid becoming trapped.

NASA’s next rover remains unnamed, but the “Mars 2020” mission will use the same chassis as Curiosity. It will be immune to the dust storms that claimed Opportunity.

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