Earlier this year we lost a space exploration giant. Or better yet, a small robot. On February 13, 2019 we said a final farewell to our good pal, the Mars Opportunity Rover. That day, NASA’s last attempt to reach the rover failed. Its mission finally ended. If it had a burial site, its epitaph may read something like “Opportunity Rover: Roll on Good Robot” or “Here lies Opportunity, a real life Wall-E.”
The Opportunity Rover was launched in 2003 and landed on Mars in 2004. Only planned to complete a 90 day mission, the rover far exceeded all expectations, and was still actively exploring the Red Planet until about a year ago. The last communication from sweet old Oppy was heard on June 10, 2018.The most recent global dust storm on Mars proved to be too much for the rover, as dust settled on its solar panels, preventing it from receiving any power. The rover stopped halfway down a ravine, somewhat ironically named Perseverance Valley. However, the rover’s death occurred not before it provided us with multiple discoveries about the surface of Mars. Perhaps most significant was the rover’s integral role in the study of some of the oldest rocks found on Mars. Opportunity provided information on Martian geology that helped scientists come to the conclusion that Mars indeed had liquid water on its surface at one point in its history. The rover’s fearless exploration of Mars and its unprecedented survival on the planet only demonstrated that we have yet to scratch the surface of space exploration possibilities.
After 14 years, astronomers and the public alike had developed an attachment to the robot. It is hard to say goodbye, but alas we must press on. NASA already has plans to launch a new rover to explore Mars in July of 2020. Is this too soon to move on? Our hearts say yes, but our heads say no, space exploration must move forward! This new rover will specifically look for signs of bacterial life on the Red Planet. A welcome addition to the legacy of the Opportunity Rover, the hope is the 2020 rover will make even more impactful discoveries about the mystery that is Mars. So thank you, Opportunity, for paving the way for Martian exploration. You will be missed.
Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written by Park Ranger Julianne Renner and recorded by Park Ranger Gina Poulson.
Side note: You can send your name to Mars aboard the 2020 rover!