NASA’s Opportunity, the Mars rover that was built to operate for just three months but kept going and going, was pronounced dead Wednesday, 15 years after it landed on the Red Planet.
The six-wheeled vehicle’s greatest achievement was discovering that Mars had water flowing on its surface. It was remarkably active until eight months ago, when it was hit by a ferocious dust storm.
Flight controllers tried numerous times to make contact and 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 from space, only silence.
Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science missions, broke the news to members of the Opportunity team in Pasadena, California.
Given the silence from space, “it is therefore that I’m standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude that I declare the Opportunity mission as complete,” Zurbruchen told a packed auditorium. “It’s an emotional time.”
The golf cart-size Opportunity outlived its twin, the Spirit rover, by several years. The two slow-moving vehicles landed on opposite sides of the planet in 2004 for a mission that was meant to last 90 days.
In the end, Opportunity set endurance and distance records that could stand for years, if not decades. Opportunity roamed a record 28 miles around Mars and worked longer than any other lander.
Opportunity was exploring Mars’ Perseverance Valley when a dust storm hit. 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 was 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.
With project costs reaching about $500,000 a month, NASA decided there was no point in continuing.
“This is a hard day,” said project manager John Callas. “Even though it’s a machine and we’re saying goodbye, it’s still very hard and very poignant, but we had to do that. We came to that point.” He added: “It comes time to say goodbye.”
Scientists consider this the end of an era, now that Opportunity and Spirit are both gone.
Opportunity was the fifth of eight spacecraft to successfully land on Mars. All belong to NASA. Only two remain working: the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, prowling around since 2012, and the recently arrived InSight, which just this week placed a heat-sensing, self-hammering probe on the dusty red surface.
Three more landers — from the United States, China and Europe — are due to launch next year.