Today, NASA is expected to officially announce what we’ve all been suspecting since last summer. NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover is officially dead.
Edit to update: NASA has released an official statement saying that Oppy is dead. Goodnight, sweet prince.
It’s been eight months since we last heard from Opportunity. That last communication came just as a historical planet-wide dust storm enveloped the rover as it puttered around on the surface of the red planet.
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NASA has been trying to make contact with the rover ever since it lost contact on June 10th. Hope has been waning for the lost rover. NASA has send over 835 recovery commands to Opportunity that have gone unanswered. According to NASA, last night marked the final attempt to reach out to the Martian explorer.
Tonight, we’ll make our last planned attempts to contact Opportunity. The solar-powered rover last communicated on June 10, 2018, as a planet-wide dust storm swept across Mars.
— Spirit and Oppy (@MarsRovers) February 12, 2019
You can check JPL’s Deep Space Network page yourself – no satellite dishes are currently aimed at Opportunity.
Honestly, I could keep the JPL DSN page open in a tab forever and be just fine – the visualization of seeing the satellites ‘talk’ to spacecraft like Juno (orbiting Jupiter), MAVEN (orbiting Mars), New Horizons (currently on an escape trajectory from the Solar System), and even Voyager 2 (which has left our Solar System and is in interstellar space) gives me goosebumps. It even shows you how long it takes for a signal to go from Earth, to the spacecraft, and back, which helps illustrate the massive distances involved with space travel.
A historical dust storm on Mars
Near the end of May 2018, NASA noticed that there was a rather large dust storm forming on Mars. Dust storms on Mars aren’t a new phenomenon, as NASA has been studying for a long time. The storms can be 20-30 kilometers tall, and the dust can actually become charged, resulting in lightning. The largest of storms will encircle the entire planet, resulting in the planet appearing to be just a big red ball when viewed through a telescope.
As explained in the video below, the particles in the dust storms aren’t like typical dust here on Earth – it’s more like talcum powder.
I remember taking my 9 year old to a star party last summer, and despite the weather cooperating with us marvelously, you couldn’t see the surface of Mars and it looked like a red blob. (I encourage you to do a search for local astronomy clubs/events in your area – I’m a member of our local club, the Indiana Astronomical Society)
While our first reaction may be to mourn the loss of our malfunctioning friend, it’s important to remember what the original mission was and review all the successes Oppy had during its tenure.
Opportunity landed along with its companion rover, Spirit, in January 2004. Their mission was to explore the surface and geology of Mars for 90 days (yes, just three months). We lost the Spirit rover back in 2010, but not before it sent back nearly 125,000 images. For comparison, Opportunity has sent back well over 216,000 images from the Martian surface.
A Lost Opportunity
Last June as the dust storm descended upon Opportunity, the rover’s last message essentially said “my battery is low, and it’s getting very dark.” The storm lasted for months, and hopes of Mars’ windy season clearing off the panels and Opportunity springing back to life have been dashed. Opportunity could survive temperatures as cold as -40° Celsius (which also happens to be -40° Fahrenheit), however Martian winter is coming for Opportunity, where temperatures can dive down to -100° Celsius (-148° Fahrenheit). Normally Opportunity would keep itself warm by moving, however with a deep freeze like this, the expectation is parts will contract, and possibly even break. As KPCC science reporter Jacob Margolis pointed out to NPR:
And even if the batteries do manage to get some solar charge, it’ll probably spend that energy turning on its emergency heaters just trying to warm its robot heart. And it’s this, like, compartment with all of its most important parts, meaning that the energy will never quite be enough to get through winter and really keep going. So they’re kind of hitting the end of what they – of the window here for it.
Opportunity is survived by the Mars Curiosity rover (an SUV-sized science tank that landed on Mars via a goddamn sky crane in 2012 that had an original two year mission) and the Mars InSight lander (which will study the inside of Mars for Marsquakes – Earthquakes, but on Mars). In July 2020, NASA will launch its Mars 2020 mission, which (besides also landing on Mars via a goddamn sky crane about 250 million kilometers away from Earth) will look for signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the past, and the past presence of microbial life itself.