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Remembering Opportunity, the little rover that could

This self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity comes courtesy of the Sun and the rover's front hazard-avoidance camera. Photo credit: NASA
February 14, 2019

On Wednesday, February 13, 2019, NASA officially announced the “death” of Opportunity (2003-2018), a rover sent to Mars by NASA in 2003 for a 90-day mission that turned into a staggering fifteen years.


Opportunity landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, three weeks after its companion rover, Spirit, touched down on the other side of the Red Planet. Opportunity and Spirit were part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, and, together, the pair were tasked with helping scientists better understand the planet’s geology and the history of water on the planet.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Opportunity’s “empty nest” after landing on Mars on January 25, 2004. (Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell)

After the success of the Sojourner rover in 1997, which demonstrated the feasibility of a wheeled vehicle on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity were the first truly mobile geology laboratories on Mars. Both Opportunity and Spirit far exceeded their expected lifetime—just 90 days. Spirit lasted until 2010 and gave scientists amazing data about an ancient hydrothermal system at its landing site, called Gusev Crater. Opportunity showed that its landing area, Meridiani Planum, was the site of a shallow salty sea. Both rovers gave us a picture of a warmer, wetter Mars billions of years in the past.

Periodically, dust covered both rovers’ solar panels, only to be cleaned off later by a passing gust of wind. At times, Opportunity was slowed by computer problems, sand dunes, tilted terrain, and rocky ground, but the science and engineering teams were able to get what they expected, and so much more, out of their plucky golf cart-sized robot.

Despite many challenging obstacles, Opportunity went on to spend an incredible 5,352 sols (or Mars days) covering 45.16 kilometers across the Red Planet. However, in June 2018, Opportunity encountered a dust storm that was darker and longer-lasting than any previous storm that the rovers had weathered. The amount of sunlight at Opportunity’s location dropped to 1% of normal levels, meaning there was too little light to recharge the rover’s batteries. Opportunity’s last message to Earth, sent in June 2018, essentially told scientists My batteries are low and it’s getting dark here. Since then, over 1,000 commands have been sent to the mighty rover, without response. More than likely, the rover’s onboard computer was so scrambled by the extended battery outage that it could not recover. As a final goodbye, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent one last command, the song “I’ll Be Seeing You” made famous by jazz singer Billie Holiday. The response was silence.

Photo credit: NASA
Opportunity’s final resting place as photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on September 20, 2018. (Photo credit: NASA)

Insights From Opportunity

In its unprecedented fifteen-year mission, Opportunity made significant contributions to our understanding of the Red Planet. Some highlights include:

Opportunity, More Than a Machine

The loss of Opportunity has struck a chord in many who have followed the rover over the past fifteen years. Admirers took to social media to express their condolences for the “little rover that could” and say their own farewells.

On behalf of so many young scientists who got their start watching these amazing robots: Goodbye, Spirit, and Oppy. And thank you.

Future of Mars Exploration

While we say our final goodbye to Opportunity, exploration of Mars is far from over. Several NASA satellites currently orbit Mars, including MAVEN, Mars Odyssey, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which, together, have given us a better picture of the surface and atmosphere of Mars. The Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, is currently exploring Mount Sharp in Gale Crater, and NASA’s InSight lander is just 78 sols (at time of publication) into its two-year mission to explore Mars’ interior structure. (To learn more, visit NASA’s Mars Exploration Program online.)

In addition to U.S. spacecraft, there are several from other countries at Mars now, including the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express satellite and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission. In 2020, NASA will launch the Mars 2020 rover to seek signs of past life on Mars, and the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch the ExoMars rover—newly named for Rosalind Franklin, a British scientist who contributed to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.


Header Photo: Image (and self-portrait) taken by Opportunity on sol 180 (July 26, 2004) (Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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