Opportunity was supposed to roam Mars for three months. But NASA’s rover held on for the long haul—rolling across the rocky red soil like a real-life, outer space Energizer bunny for 15 years. But alas! The rover was pronounced dead on Wednesday.
The six-wheeled vehicle was spry up until eight months ago. Opportunity was exploring Mars’ Perseverance Valley when the fiercest dust storm in decades hit and contact was lost. The storm was so intense that it darkened the sky for months, preventing sunlight from reaching the rover’s solar panels.
When the sky finally cleared, Opportunity remained silent, its internal clock possibly so scrambled that it no longer knew when to sleep or wake up to receive commands. Flight controllers sent more than 1,000 recovery commands, all in vain.
Flight controllers sent one final series of recovery commands Tuesday night along with one last wake-up song, Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” There was no response.
Opportunity outlived its twin, the Spirit rover, by several years. The two vehicles landed on opposite sides of the planet in 2004. Their mission was meant to last 90 Mars days, which are 39 minutes longer than a day on Earth.
Trundling along until communication ceased last June, Opportunity worked longer than any other lander—anywhere, ever. Its greatest achievement was discovering evidence that water may once have flowed on Mars.
Opportunity was the fifth of eight spacecraft to successfully land on Mars. All belong to NASA. Only two are still working: the Curiosity rover (see “Curiosity Snaps Selfie”), prowling since 2012; and the recently arrived InSight, which just this week placed a probe on the dusty red surface.
Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science missions, broke the news to the Opportunity team. “I declare the Opportunity mission as complete,” Zurbruchen said, adding, “It’s an emotional time.”
(This illustration made available by NASA shows the rover Opportunity on the surface of Mars. NASA via AP)