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Losing the Mars rover Opportunity is like saying goodbye to a friend

Scientists like me will spend decades poring over the data it sent back, but today we’re mourning

An illustration of the rover Opportunity on the surface of Mars. (NASA/AP) (AP)

On Tuesday evening, I stood on an observation deck overlooking mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to witness a final attempt to contact the Opportunity Mars rover.

We had lost contact with Opportunity in June when a planet­wide dust storm darkened the Martian skies to historic levels. Unable to charge her solar-powered battery, Opportunity fell silent. During the weeks it took for the storm to abate, Opportunity’s engineers studied thousands of lines of code in the rover’s fault-protection software, which had been written decades ago by people who had long since left the project, to figure out the best way to get Opportunity to talk to us again. If there was any way to recover the vehicle, our engineers would do it. But if the solar panels were covered in too much dust after the storm, or if a heater that had been stuck on since landing drained the battery because we couldn’t tell Opportunity to shut everything down, we’d be out of luck.

We hailed the rover more than 1,000 times, always met by silence. By Tuesday, the dark Martian winter was quickly approaching, and we knew we had reached the endgame. NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen traveled from Washington, D.C. to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to tell the team in person that this night would be our last chance to contact the rover. The odds of recovery were low.

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Tuesday’s communication attempts began with a “wake-up song” played in the control room in Pasadena . The mission’s principal investigator, Steve Squyres, had chosen “I’ll Be Seeing You,” as performed by Billie Holiday. At 8:10 p.m., Holiday’s wistful voice floated up from the command floor. “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces,” she sang. Tears welled in my eyes.

Opportunity — or Oppy, as we affectionately call her — has been in my heart since she touched down on Martian soil 15 years ago, in January 2004. I was 16 and a student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. I loved space, and I couldn’t believe my luck when the Planetary Society offered me the chance to watch Opportunity land at the JPL through its Red Rover Goes to Mars program. I was with the science team when we saw Oppy’s first images of Mars pop into view on large projection screens around the room. Instead of the rocky volcanic plains previous Mars landers had seen, Opportunity revealed a sea of sand with a strip of white bedrock poking through.

I’m not sure how many people can point to the specific moment when they decided what they wanted to be when they grew up, but I can say with certainty that was the night I decided I would spend my life studying the geology of other worlds.

After my freshman year of college in 2006, Cornell professor Jim Bell, who was the instrument lead for Opportunity’s color camera, agreed to take me on as a summer student to work with data from Opportunity and her twin rover, Spirit. It was my first real taste of planetary research, and I loved every second of it. Three years later I headed to graduate school, where I helped with Opportunity’s tactical operations under the guidance of Ray Arvidson, the mission’s deputy principal investigator. Now several years post-PhD, I’m a staff research scientist at the JPL, and I have been the deputy project scientist for Opportunity for the past three years.

Opportunity and Spirit, which completed her mission in 2011, were by every measure extraordinary successes. These little robots smashed through expectations of mere 90-day lifetimes, drove miles farther than they were designed for and revolutionized our understanding of the Red Planet. Scientists like me will continue to pore over their data for decades. Spirit and Opportunity also captivated the public’s imagination. The mission’s images were immediately posted online, allowing anyone, anywhere in the world, to explore Mars in real time with us.

There could be life on Mars. Of course we should try to find it.

I think it’s because of Opportunity’s extraordinary successes that we feel such a sense of loss as her mission ends. Over 15 years, we’ve come to think of Opportunity as a friend. We’ve taken pride in protecting her and keeping her exploring. For many, the worst part will be saying goodbye to our extremely tightknit mission team: No more tactical meetings to attend every morning at 9 a.m. No more spirited weekly science discussions on Tuesdays at 1 p.m., debating the meaning of the latest measurements. Where exactly did the odd rocks we discovered just before the dust storm come from? And where should we drive next to collect more data on them?

But for me, losing Oppy is like losing the magnet that directs my life’s compass. My career trajectory has been inextricably intertwined with Opportunity’s. Over the past 15 years, science teachers and mentors have become colleagues, and these colleagues have become lifelong friends. Completing the mission is like closing a most wonderful chapter of my life. I’m so proud to have been a small part of it.

Around 9:45 p.m. on Tuesday, after putting in a request to extend the planned listening time just a few minutes to make sure we didn’t miss anything, Opportunity project manager John Callas told the radio operators they could stop. In contrast to the fanfare of the landing night I remember so vividly from 15 years ago, Callas simply stated, “I wanted to say with the completion of tonight’s commanding, this concludes operations for MER1, spacecraft ID 253.”