A Little Rover that Defied the Odds: Farewell, Opportunity
Meghan Brown posted on February 14, 2019 |

"It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars. When that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration."

The dramatic image of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity's shadow was taken on sol 180 (July 26, 2004) by the rover's front hazard-avoidance camera as the rover moved farther into Endurance Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)
The dramatic image of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity's shadow was taken on sol 180 (July 26, 2004) by the rover's front hazard-avoidance camera as the rover moved farther into Endurance Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

These were the words by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on February 13th, 2019, marking the end of one of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration: NASA's Opportunity Mars Rover mission.

Designed to last a mere 90 Martian days and to travel about 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed every expectation in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. After almost 15 years spent exploring the surface of Mars, Opportunity exceeded its life expectancy 60 times over, and traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting place on Mars – Perseverance Valley.

This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s current view in the global dust storm (June 2018). The left starts with a blindingly bright mid-afternoon sky, with the sun appearing bigger because of brightness. The right shows the Sun so obscured by dust it looks like a pinprick. Each frame corresponds to a tau value, or measure of opacity: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU.)

This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s current view in the global dust storm (June 2018). The left starts with a blindingly bright mid-afternoon sky, with the sun appearing bigger because of brightness. The right shows the Sun so obscured by dust it looks like a pinprick. Each frame corresponds to a tau value, or measure of opacity: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU.)

The solar-powered Opportunity’s final communication was received June 10, 2018, when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location, after which the rover stopped communicating with Earth. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact over the last eight months, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity on Tuesday, to no avail.

“We have made every reasonable engineering effort to try to recover Opportunity and have determined that the likelihood of receiving a signal is far too low to continue recovery efforts," said John Callas, manager of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project at JPL.

This final transmission, sent via the 70-meter Mars Station antenna at NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Complex in California, ended the multifaceted, eight-month recovery strategy that attempted to compel the rover to communicate.

"For more than a decade, Opportunity has been an icon in the field of planetary exploration, teaching us about Mars' ancient past as a wet, potentially habitable planet, and revealing uncharted Martian landscapes," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Whatever loss we feel now must be tempered with the knowledge that the legacy of Opportunity continues – both on the surface of Mars with the Curiosity rover and InSight lander – and in the cleanrooms of JPL, where the upcoming Mars 2020 rover is taking shape."


Drive along with the NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover and hear the voices of scientists and engineers behind the mission. Designed to run for 90 days, the exploration spanned more than 15 years from 2004 to 2019. Along the way, it discovered definitive proof of liquid water on ancient Mars and set the off-world driving record. (Video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Opportunity on Mars

Opportunity landed in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars on Jan. 24, 2004, seven months after its launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Its twin rover, Spirit, had landed 20 days earlier in the 103-mile-wide (166-kilometer-wide) Gusev Crater on the other side of Mars. Spirit logged almost 5 miles (8 kilometers) before its mission wrapped up in May 2011.

Opportunity used its panoramic camera to take the images combined into this mosaic view of the rover. The downward-looking view omits the mast on which the camera is mounted. It shows Opportunity's solar panels to be relatively dust-free. The images were taken through the camera's 600-, 530- and 480-nanometer filters during Opportunity's 322nd and 323rd Martian days, or sols (Dec. 19 and 20, 2004). (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell.)
Opportunity used its panoramic camera to take the images combined into this mosaic view of the rover. The downward-looking view omits the mast on which the camera is mounted. It shows Opportunity's solar panels to be relatively dust-free. The images were taken through the camera's 600-, 530- and 480-nanometer filters during Opportunity's 322nd and 323rd Martian days, or sols (Dec. 19 and 20, 2004). (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell.)

From the day Opportunity landed, a team of mission engineers, rover drivers and scientists on Earth collaborated to overcome challenges and get the rover from one geologic site on Mars to the next. They plotted workable avenues over rugged terrain so that the 384-pound (174-kilogram) Martian explorer could maneuver around and, at times, over rocks and boulders, climb gravel-strewn slopes as steep as 32-degrees (an off-Earth record), probe crater floors, summit hills and traverse possible dry riverbeds. Its final venture brought it to the western limb of Perseverance Valley.

"I cannot think of a more appropriate place for Opportunity to endure on the surface of Mars than one called Perseverance Valley," said Michael Watkins, director of JPL. "The records, discoveries and sheer tenacity of this intrepid little rover is testament to the ingenuity, dedication, and perseverance of the people who built and guided her."

This view from within

This view from within "Perseverance Valley," on the inner slope of the western rim of Endurance Crater on Mars, includes wheel tracks from the Opportunity rover's descent of the valley. The Panoramic Camera (Pancam) on Opportunity's mast took the component images of the scene during the period Sept. 4 through Oct. 6, 2017, corresponding to sols (Martian days) 4840 through 4871 of the rover's work on Mars. 

Perseverance Valley is a system of shallow troughs descending eastward about the length of two football fields from the crest of the crater rim to the floor of the crater. This panorama spans from northeast on the left to northwest on the right, including portions of the crater floor (eastward) in the left half and of the rim (westward) in the right half. Opportunity began descending Perseverance Valley in mid-2017 (see map) as part of an investigation into how the valley formed. Rover wheel tracks are darker brown, between two patches of bright bedrock, receding toward the horizon in the right half of the scene. 

This view combines multiple images taken through three different Pancam filters. The selected filters admit light centered on wavelengths of 753 nanometers (near-infrared), 535 nanometers (green) and 432 nanometers (violet). The three color bands are combined here to show approximately true color. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State University.)

All of the off-roading and on-location scientific analyses were in service of the Mars Exploration Rovers’ primary objective: To seek out historical evidence of the Red Planet's climate and water at sites where conditions may once have been favorable for life. Because liquid water is required for life, as we know it, Opportunity's discoveries implied that conditions at Meridiani Planum may have been habitable for some period of time in Martian history.

"From the get-go, Opportunity delivered on our search for evidence regarding water," said Steve Squyres, principal investigator of the rovers' science payload at Cornell University. "And when you combine the discoveries of Opportunity and Spirit, they showed us that ancient Mars was a very different place from Mars today, which is a cold, dry, desolate world. But if you look to its ancient past, you find compelling evidence for liquid water below the surface and liquid water at the surface."

All those accomplishments were not without the occasional extraterrestrial impediment. In 2005 alone, Opportunity lost steering to one of its front wheels, a stuck heater threatened to severely limit the rover's available power, and a Martian sand ripple almost trapped it for good. Two years later, a two-month dust storm imperiled the rover before relenting. In 2015, Opportunity lost use of its 256-megabyte flash memory and, in 2017, it lost steering to its other front wheel. 

Each time the rover faced an obstacle, Opportunity's team on Earth found and implemented a solution that enabled the rover to bounce back. However, the massive dust storm that took shape in the summer of 2018 proved too much for history's most senior Mars explorer.

"When I think of Opportunity, I will recall that place on Mars where our intrepid rover far exceeded everyone's expectations," Callas said. "But what I suppose I'll cherish most is the impact Opportunity had on us here on Earth. It's the accomplished exploration and phenomenal discoveries. It’s the generation of young scientists and engineers who became space explorers with this mission. It's the public that followed along with our every step. And it's the technical legacy of the Mars Exploration Rovers, which is carried aboard Curiosity and the upcoming Mars 2020 mission. Farewell, Opportunity, and well done."

Looking Behind, Looking Ahead

Mars exploration continues unabated. NASA's InSight lander, which touched down on Nov. 26, is just beginning its scientific investigations. The Curiosity rover has been exploring Gale Crater for more than six years. And, NASA's Mars 2020 rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover both will launch in July 2020, becoming the first rover missions designed to seek signs of past microbial life on the Red Planet.

This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth's moon and Mars. Opportunity holds the off-Earth roving distance record after accruing 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers) of driving on Mars. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)
This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth's moon and Mars. Opportunity holds the off-Earth roving distance record after accruing 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers) of driving on Mars. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

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