Fifteen years after the Mars Opportunity rover landed on Mars, no one expected NASA would be concerned with the rover’s future in 2019. Its mission was supposed to be over thousands of days ago.
NASA only expected the Mars Opportunity rover to last 90 Martian sols, or 92 Earth days, on the Red Planet.
Raymond E. Arvidson, PhD, with Washington University in St. Louis is deputy principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Arvidson said NASA never imagined the rover lasting longer than three to six months.
Arvidson described how Opportunity shocked the engineers and science team by traveling 28 miles on Mars, surviving way beyond its ‘warranty’.
“It’s just a well-made American vehicle,” said Arvidson.
Over the last 15 years, Opportunity explored well over 100 impact craters and produced valuable scientific data before the rover fell silent. Communication with Earth stopped on June 10, 2018 during a massive dust storm on Mars.
Arvidson explained how he was living on Mars time in January 2004. He was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when Opportunity landed on Mars. It landed on January 24, 2004 Pacific Time (January 25, 2004 Universal Time).
The landing was considered a ‘hole in one’. Arvidson said Opportunity confirmed what scientists suspected from orbital data prior to launching on July 7, 2003. The team selected Meridiani Planun as the landing site because it showed signs of having evidence of liquid water flowing across ancient Mars.
The rover landed in a scientific goldmine by discovering the mineral hematite that’s typically formed in water.
On Opportunity’s 15-year anniversary landing, there is much to be celebrated.
In recent years, Opportunity found the most compelling signs of a watery past at Endeavor Crater. Arvidson said the evidence suggests friendly conditions for ancient microbial life on Mars.
Arvidson said there is more science to be done at Endeavor Crater, but the historic global dust storm on Mars silenced the solar-powered rover.
According to NASA, “Opportunity likely experienced a low-power fault, a mission clock fault and an up-loss timer fault. Since the loss of signal, the team has been listening for the rover over a broad range of times, frequencies and polarizations using the Deep Space Network (DSN) Radio Science Receiver. They have been commanding ‘sweep and beeps’ throughout each daily DSN pass with both right-hand and left-hand circular polarization to address a possible complexity with certain conditions within mission clock fault on the rover. They have expanded the breath of ‘sweep and beeps’ commanding covering more times of day on Mars. Mars is now in the seasonal period of past dust clearing events for the rover. “
On October 29, 2018, NASA said it will continue attempting to make contact with the Opportunity rover for the foreseeable future. In the released statement, “Winds could increase in the next few months at Opportunity’s location on Mars, resulting in dust being blown off the rover’s solar panels. The agency will reassess the situation in the January 2019 time frame.”
Arvidson said it’s possible Opportunity could ‘wake up’ when the dust is blown off.
“We’ll continue to try to establish contact in a very focused way through January 2019,” said Arvidson.
Arvidson said he realizes they may never hear from Opportunity again. Opportunity had a long life on Mars and the time may come to move on. But Arvidson added, “I’ve learned not to bet against Opportunity.”
Three Weeks Later, NASA Declares Opportunity Officially Dead
On February 13, 2019, NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover has been officially declared dead.
NASA made the announcement during an emotional media briefing at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The agency said it had ended its efforts to communicate with Opportunity after sending more than 1,000 radio signals its way, including some the night before.
After the announcement, Arvidson shared his thoughts. “We lost communication with the NASA Mars Opportunity rover in June 2018 during the midst of the largest atmospheric dust storm that we have witnessed during the roughly half century of space-borne observations of the red planet. Opportunity’s solar panels just did not generate enough power to have her communicate with Earth. After 8 months of trying to establish communications with the rover NASA has declared that this mission is over. Opportunity’s accomplishments have been extraordinary, both in engineering and science. She far exceeded her design lifetime for instruments and mobility. Opportunity was the first landed vehicle on another planet to examine a sedimentary rock record, proving that liquid water was once on the surface of Mars for a sustained period. Some of the water was acidic, and some was more and less neutral, and even drinkable! The legacy from this mission will be providing direct proof that the red planet was once warm and wet, thereby increasing greatly the probability that our neighboring planet was once habitable, and may have even supported life.”