During a briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, agency officials announced that the Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity has officially gone silent. The announcement follows over 200 days of silence from Opportunity and over 1,000 recovery commands.
Opportunity’s demise was preceded by a historic global dust storm on the surface of Mars that engulfed the 185-kilogram rover. The pint-sized rover is solar powered and, as a result, with the sun blocked by thick dust clouds, its battery quickly ran dry. Another of NASA’s rovers, Curiosity was also engulfed in the storm. However, unlike Opportunity, Curiosity is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator and is not reliant on the sun.
Once the dust storm had dissipated to the point that operators were confident that Opportunity’s solar panels were again seeing the sun, they began to send recovery commands. Following the transmission of each command, the Opportunity team listened for the rover’s response on a broad range of “frequencies and polarizations using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver”.
During a several-month-long recovery effort, operators sent over 1,000 commands from Earth to Opportunity on the Martian surface. All the commands were met with silence from the rover. Although we can’t be certain, NASA believes that the rover likely suffered “a low-power fault, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault.”
On Tuesday, February 12, 2019, NASA announced that they would be sending one last set of recovery commands. At the briefing today, officials announced that this last Hail Mary attempt to contact Opportunity had failed.
The announcement brings an end to a record-breaking mission. Opportunity was launched on July 7, 2003, aboard a Delta II rocket. The rover touched down on the surface of Mars on January 25, 2004. It was expected to remain operational for just 90 sols (92.5 Earth days). However, the little rover would defy its design and continue to collect valuable data for well over 5,000 sols (5,151 Earth days)
During its time on the Martian surface, Opportunity would break the record for the longest distance transversed by a rover travelling a total of 45.16 kilometres (28.06) miles. The previous record had been held by Russia’s Lunokhod 2 which travelled 39 kilometres (24 miles) on the surface of the Moon.
In addition to breaking the record for distance travelled, Opportunity holds the records for steepest slop traversed (32 degrees) and the highest elevation reached (235 meters above the “Botany Bay” level).
Although Opportunity’s mission has come to end, the rover’s legacy and the generations of scientists and engineers it inspired will prevail.