Space Time

It’s Time to Say Goodbye to Our Beloved Mars Rover

The Opportunity Rover’s mission on Mars is coming to a close

Opportunity's photo of her own shadow extending into Endeavour crater on Mars. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL/Cornell

WWhen the Opportunity Rover — formally known as Mars Exploration Rover B — arrived on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004, it impacted the planet in a suit of giant airbags. The rover landed, bounced up 10 feet, slammed back down, and jumped another 22 feet before eventually settling on the surface for good. The airbags deflated, the enclosure opened up, and Opportunity slowly unfurled its wing-like solar panels to begin collecting the Martian sunlight it would need to survive.

Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was filled with cheers. “We’re on Mars, everybody!” yelled JPL’s Rob Manning. After the first color image was sent back to Earth, team member Steve Squyres declared that “Opportunity has touched down in a bizarre, alien landscape. I’m flabbergasted. I’m astonished. I’m blown away.”

The Opportunity Rover’s mission was planned to last only 90 days. But the rover survived long past its expected expiration. Fourteen years later, it was still sending NASA data from the red planet.

But in June 2018, the most severe Martian dust storm in recorded history covered Opportunity in darkness and prevented sunlight from reaching the solar-powered rover. As a result, Opportunity could no longer communicate with Earth. June 10, 2018, was the last day we heard from the rover. Its last photos were of the sun completely blacked out.

It’s expected that NASA will soon announce the end of the mission.

This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view. Photo courtesy of ASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

Since the rover’s calls to Earth stopped, team members, NASA employees, and fans of the mission have taken to social media to beg NASA not to give up on the rover. They shared stories about what the spacecraft has meant to them. Some met their spouses while working on the mission, and some pursued careers in engineering and science with the sole purpose of working with Opportunity — or “Oppy” as it’s colloquially referred to.

“I drove Spirit and Opportunity for nine years,” Scott Maxwell, a former Mars rover planning lead for Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity at the JPL, shared with me via Twitter. “My cat died. My dad died. I got divorced. And I met the woman I would marry, now the mother of my son. Through all the ups and downs, Opportunity was there: a constant, a joy. She became the thing we could rely on.”

A selfie from Opportunity. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL/Doug Ellison

As I’ve watched NASA scientists and space enthusiasts share their grief online, I’ve contemplated why it’s so upsetting to let a rover go. After all, it’s been 14 years. To say this mission was a success would be an understatement. It’s not the first time we’ve said goodbye to a spacecraft either.

But the loss severs a connection to the cosmos — a place that’s off-limits for humans. In 2012, Opportunity took a panoramic photo of an area called Cape Tribulation from the rim of the Endeavor Crater. NASA’s JPL issued a press release with the photo titled Mars Panorama: The Next Best Thing to Being There.

Opportunity’s 2012 panoramic image of Mars. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University

These spacecraft are, in many ways, better explorers than astronauts. Humans can be much more efficient when it comes to conducting science, but the risk is also significantly higher. Even so, humans dreamed about these spacecraft, designed them, launched them into space, and operated them. They feel as human as a robotic spacecraft can possibly be.

Opportunity has allowed us to be on Mars for 14 years. There are other missions that will follow, not just to Mars but to entire other worlds. We are at Jupiter right now. We will go back to Saturn and its moons. Someday we’ll visit Venus and fly by Uranus and Neptune again.

After seven quiet months, the Opportunity Rover still sits with a permanent view of Perseverance Valley. If I look at a photo, I can imagine being there, gazing down into a silent Mars. There will always be boundaries for human kind. But our spacecraft can take us anywhere we want to go.

Freelance writer in the Bay Area

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