NASA set to hold funeral for silent Mars Opportunity rover

Cristina Cross
February 14, 2019

When their attempts once again failed to generate a signal, the agency was compelled to make the heartbreaking the announcement that the robot - which had traveled miles through the Martian landscape and sent back awe-inspiring pictures during its 15-year mission - was officially dead.

"To have a 90-day mission last for 15 years, and then end as a effect of one of the most ferocious dust storms to hit Mars in a very long time, we can walk away with our heads held high", Steve Squyres, a Cornell professor and principal investigator on the mission, told Gizmodo.

The agency will have made one final attempt to contact its Opportunity Rover late last night United States of America time (Tuesday), eight months after the spacecraft last made contact.

"I was there with the team as these commands went out into the deep sky, and I learned this morning that we had not heard back, and our beloved Opportunity remained silent", said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science.

It's lights out for Opportunity, one of NASA's most successful missions of all time.

The golf cart-size Opportunity outlived its twin, the Spirit rover, by several years.

The craft, which arrived at the Red Planet in July 2004, has been out of communication since last summer.

"Hail to the Queen of Mars", added Mike Seibert, Opportunity's former flight director and rover driver, in another tweet, while Frank Hartman, who piloted Oppy, told AFP he felt "greatly honoured to have been a small part of it". NASA officials issued a final series of recovering commands on Tuesday, on top of 1,000 which have already been sent. "We would all love it if our cellphone batteries lasted this long", Callas said.

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When Opportunity's twin, Spirit, became mired in soft soil in 2009 and its five working wheels couldn't free the rover, NASA held a "service" to commemorate the end of the mission in May 2011.

"We were meant to get to this point: To wear these rovers out, to leave behind no unutilized capabilities on the surface of Mars", said John Callas, MER project manager. Global dust storms typically kick up every few years, and "we had gone a long time without one".

The lead scientist on the Opportunity project, Cornell University's Steve Squyres, believes the rover has had "an honourable death".

Nasa's Opportunity on Mars was to search for clues about the history of water. This, in turn, has fueled what we look for on Mars- which is to say, water and clues to if life could ever have arisen on Mars.

It survived a bad dust storm in 2007 and is now being closely watched to see if it can survive a massive storm that has an estimated opacity level of 10.8, a sharp increase from the earlier storm's 5.5 tau. It had a heater that was draining energy, and the clock was scrambled by loss of power, so it didn't know when to sleep. The rover's batteries were in good health prior to the dust storm, and the surface temperature was relatively warm when the storm began. Zurbuchen thanked the hundreds of scientists and engineers for working for nearly two decades on the mission.

Three more landers - from the U.S., China and Europe - are due to launch next year. And it's the technical legacy of the Mars Exploration Rovers, which is carried aboard Curiosity and the upcoming Mars 2020 mission.

If the machine does not respond, Nasa will declare the rover dead.

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