The NASA Opportunity Rover's Historic, 15-Year Mission Comes to a Close

No, we're not crying. There's just a little bit of space dust in our eye. 

by James Dennin

When the Mars Opportunity rover, also known as MER-B or MER-1, first touched down on the surface of Mars to begin its exploratory mission, Tobey Maguire was still Spider-Man, the Razr was the must-have mobile phone, and Barack Obama was still months away from making his global debut during the Democratic National Convention.

In the 15 years since it landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, the rover that inspired Wall-E has weathered dust storms, found evidence of ancient water channels, and sent nearly a quarter of a million images back to Earth. After this epic run, NASA is officially declaring mission accomplished.

Opportunity first lost contact with NASA over the summer, after a June dust storm on the surface of Mars cut off the rover’s source of solar power and damaged its instruments. The hope, at the time, was that by September the weather would have cleared enough for Opportunity to recharge, but that did not appear to happen. According to NASA’s statement, researchers made nearly 1,000 attempts to try and re-establish contact. But as NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine noted in a statement, “Oppy” had a good run, outliving what was supposed to be a 90-day mission by about 14 years.

Opportunity achieved a number of notable accomplishments that have readied humans to one day return to Mars. In addition to documenting its surroundings, it also identified hematite, a mineral which forms in water, near its landing site. Though it was designed to travel just 1,000 yards, it eventually wound up traveling nearly 30 miles across the Martian surface, eventually finding its final resting place in the aptly named Perseverance Valley. What’s that? No, we’re not crying. There’s just a little bit of space dust in our eye.

“On the distant plains of Mars, the Opportunity rover now joins its twin, Spirit, as a monument to humankind’s drive to explore and discover,” said Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society. “One day, our descendants will visit both spacecraft and marvel at the ingenuity of their creators.”

Opportunity’s discoveries, then, were key to establishing the notion that Mars may one day be habitable. The evidence it compiled strongly points to the existence of water, at least at one point in Mars’ ancient history, which suggests the planet might not have always been as cold and desolate as it is now. If you’re banking on getting to Mars some day, you have Opportunity to thank for establishing the concept that “Martian colonies” might not be so far-fetched after all.

It’s a bittersweet moment, but rest assured that, thanks in no small part to Opportunity’s efforts, Mars exploration is only just getting started. Just last November, the Mars InSight Lander touched down on the surface after a 205-day journey from Earth. Its experiments are only just now getting underway. There’s also the Curiosity rover, a $2.5 billion robot that’s been analyzing mineral samples and snapping selfies for almost six years.

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