• Lia N. Rovira

The Opportunity Rover Has Officially Died - Here's What It Gave Humanity

#RipOppy. After more than fourteen years driving across the surface of Mars, the NASA rover Opportunity has fallen silent, marking the end of a defining mission to another world.

At a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, NASA touched down on Mars January 25th, 2004 - before Facebook, before iPhones, and even before some of the scientists now in charge of it graduated high school. In its record-breaking time on Mars, the rover drove more than 28 miles, finding some of the first definitive signs of past liquid water on the red planet's surface.

NASA hadn’t heard from the rover since June last year, when one of the most severe dust storms ever observed on Mars blotted out much of the red planet's sky and overtook the solar-powered rover, essentially "draining its batteries." Initially, the storm didn't give the team pause. From about November to January, the red planet saw seasonal winds strong enough to wipe accumulated dust from Opportunity's solar panels, which is one of the major reasons the rover lasted so long in the first place. But when this season came and went without signals from Opportunity, hopes that it had survived began to dim.

On January 25th this year, the team sent Opportunity a set of last-ditch commands, hoping that the rover had fallen silent because of malfunctioning antennae and an internal clock on the fritz. But the commands meant to fix this admittedly unlikely scenario didn't wake the rover.

Now, as Martian Fall and Winter overtake it, NASA says that the rover will remain forever paused halfway down a windswept gully, cutely named Perseverance Valley for the rover's incredible effort.

The announcement marks the end of the record-smashing Mars Exploration Rovers mission, which built and operated Opportunity and its sibling rover, Spirit.

The two rovers were each designed to go less than a mile and last 90-100 Martian days, called sols - but the pair surpassed every conceivable expectation. Spirit drove hard through rugged terrain until it got stuck and went silent in 2010. Meanwhile, Opportunity went farther for longer than any other vehicle on another world, and all other Mars rovers combined.

For decades, NASA's Mars mantra has been to “follow the water,” both with robots on the surface and satellites in orbit. But Spirit and Opportunity were the first to uncover definitive evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars for some pretty long periods of time. Along the way, the rovers also revealed the red planet to be more complex and special than scientists originally thought.

Opportunity hit the scientific jackpot from the very beginning.

The rover's landing site provided scientists with compelling evidence that some super-salty liquid water had been present beneath the surface, and even flowed across the surface of Mars.

For the first decade following this discovery, studying the remains of this primordial brine bath was all in a day's work. Along the way, Opportunity ducked into craters, examined the impact site of its own heat shield, and discovered intact meteorites on the red planet's surface.

And when the rover arrived at the rim of Endeavor Crater in 2011, Opportunity was able to study rocks older than those at the first study site. These ancient formations - some of the oldest ever studied on Mars - held clay minerals indicative of a far cleaner, almost drinkable-quality ocean of water.

“If you go back to our understanding of Mars fifteen years ago, we didn't even know if there really had been liquid water on the surface in the past,” says Abigail Fraeman, advocate for SkyFeed and the mission's deputy project scientist. “That's what Spirit and Opportunity showed us, that yes, there is incontrovertible evidence that Mars once had a very different climate. And answering that question has let us push beyond and ask even more complicated questions.”

While this may be the end for Opportunity, the study and exploration of Mars is far from over.

The Curiosity rover is still going strong, as are several Mars orbiters and the fresh InSight lander. The European and Russian space agencies are readying their own Mars rover, and all of humanity is gearing up for the upcoming Mars 2020 rover, which will search for signs of past life and cache rock samples for future return to Earth.

In the meantime, Opportunity will stand as a monument to science for hundreds of thousands of years - and perhaps, even a site where future explorers pay tribute.

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Source: This story was originally published on National Geographic. We are republishing a lightly edited version on SkyFeed in light of interest on the subject. Greshko, Michael. "NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity Has Died. Here's What It Gave Humankind." National Geographic, 13 Feb, 2019. Web article.

Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "The Opportunity Rover Has Officially Died - Here's What It Gave Humanity." SkyFeed. 20 Feb, 2019. Web article.

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