Here’s why NASA just pronounced its famed Mars rover to be dead


The agency will have made one final attempt to contact its Opportunity Rover late last night US time (Tuesday), eight months after the spacecraft last made contact. And it's the technical legacy of the Mars Exploration Rovers, which is carried aboard Curiosity and the upcoming Mars 2020 mission.

Callas said the last-ditch attempt to make contact the night before was a sad moment, with tears and a smattering of applause when the operations team signed off.

NASA is preparing to say goodbye to their beloved Mars rover Opportunity, which appears to have reached the end of its long exploratory life on the red planet.

On Tuesday, engineers sent a transmission from a California-based antenna in a last ditch attempt to revive the rover, but heard nothing back, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Project scientist Matthew Golombek said these rover missions are meant to help answer an "almost theological" question: Does life form wherever conditions are just right, or "are we really, really lucky?"

Both rovers bounced to the Martian surface, wrapped in protective airbags, in January 2004. "Plus it has this perspective on the Martian surface that's very human-like".

"Cornell astronomer Steve Squyres, who was the principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover mission, recalled that the initial evidence suggested Mars" ancient water was highly acidic.

The MER mission yielded scientists with a wealth of information, shedding light on the history of Mars.

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Team members are already looking back at Opportunity's achievements, including confirmation water once flowed on Mars.

Later evidence gathered at Endeavour Crater indicated that the water at that location in ancient times might have been drinkable.

Opportunity was easily the longest-lasting lander on Mars, despite being created to last just 90 days, and also set a roaming record of 45 kilometres before coming to rest, somewhat fittingly, in Perseverance Valley. The mission team kept trying to wake the rover up for months thereafter, hoping that a few strong gusts of wind would blast the dust off Opportunity's solar panels and allow the robot to recharge and wake up.

"This, on a seasonal cycle, actually became pretty reliable", Callas said. "We had no idea it would take this long".

While this will most likely be a tragic end for Oppy, the rover did complete its mission, with NASA in 2004 confirming it found a rock outcrop that showed parts of the planet were wet in the past. That storm darkened the skies and cut off of the rover's solar power. It had a heater that was draining energy, and the clock was scrambled by loss of power, so it didn't know when to sleep. Once the storm had passed, engineers were hopeful that the sun would wake Opportunity up again. "Science is an emotional affair".

It may seem hard to believe given NASA's string of successful Mars missions, but the first successful rover didn't deploy until 1997.

For Spirit, the official time of death was declared on June 8, 2011, after the rover had travelled 7.7 kilometres across the Red Planet.

InSight, a NASA mission to put another spacecraft on Mars, is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars.