It's the end of an era in space exploration. NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover has finally died.
The Mars rover that was built to operate for just three months. It kept working for another 15 years until it was pronounced dead on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
The six-wheeled vehicle has helped gather critical evidence about the planet. It even revealed that ancient Mars might have been hospitable to life.
The rover was doing well until 8 months ago when it was hit by a violent dust storm. Flight controllers had been trying to make contact but eventually gave up.
According to AP, they sent "one final series of recovery commands Tuesday night, along with one last wake-up song, Billie Holiday’s 'I’ll Be Seeing You,' in a somber exercise that brought tears to team members’ eyes. There was no response from space, only silence."
Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science missions, broke the news to the Opportunity team. They had what was essentially a wake for the rover at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Given the silence from space, “it is therefore that I’m standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude that I declare the Opportunity mission as complete,” Zurbruchen told a packed auditorium. “It’s an emotional time.”
During its time on Mars, the Opportunity, a robotic geologist equipped with cameras and instruments, roamed a record 28 miles around Mars. It also worked longer than any other lander anywhere in history, collecting microscopic images and analyzing the composition of rocks and soil.
The Opportunity's greatest achievement was discovering evidence that ancient Mars had flowing water on its surface. The means it might have been capable of sustaining microbial life.
Controllers sent more than 1,000 recovery commands to recover the rover after it was lost. Sadly, project costs grew too high and NASA decided there was no point in continuing.
“This is a hard day,” said project manager John Callas. “Even though it’s a machine and we’re saying goodbye, it’s still very hard and very poignant, but we had to do that. We came to that point.”
The opportunity was the fifth of eight spacecraft to successfully land on Mars so far. Only two are still working: the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, which has been there since 2012, and the recently arrived InSight. Three more landers—one each from the U.S., China, and Europe—are due to launch next year.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the overriding goal is to search for evidence of past or even present microbial life at Mars. They are looking to find suitable locations to send astronauts, perhaps in the 2030s.
“While it is sad that we move from one mission to the next, it’s really all part of one big objective,” he said.
RIP to Opportunity Mars rover.