First and last photo of Opportunity rover on Mars reveals incredible journey

14 Feb 2019

3D render of NASA’s Opportunity rover on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After 15 years of roaming the surface of Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover has finally shut off, despite the best efforts of scientists back on Earth.

You could argue that the Opportunity rover was one of the greatest overachievers outside of Earth after going above and beyond what it was designed to do by NASA engineers. The space agency revealed yesterday (13 February) that it had finally declared the rover dead, months after it lost contact with the rover on 10 June.

Its final blow came following a severe Mars-wide dust storm that blanketed its location. Despite more than 1,000 commands sent to it to restore contact, it seems all hope is lost.

It has been an incredible 15 years for the NASA team, however, starting with one of Opportunity’s first photographs taken on 26 July 2004 by the rover’s front hazard-avoidance camera. At that time, it was planned for the rover to travel no more than 1km on a 90-Martian-day mission.

Black and white image taken by Opportunity showing its shadow against the surface of Mars.

One of the first photos taken by NASA’s Opportunity Rover on 26 July 2004, showing its shadow against the Endurance Crater. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, as the photo shows it moving into the Endurance Crater – aptly named given the circumstances – it carried on for a total of more than 5,300 Martian days, having travelled more than 45km by the time it reached its even more appropriately named resting place, Perseverance Valley.

“It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “And when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration.”

Major achievements

During its 15 years, the rover achieved a number of major feats, including setting a one-day Mars driving record in 2005 for travelling 220 metres, as well as discovering strong indications at Endeavour Crater of the action of ancient water similar to the drinkable water of a pond or lake on Earth.

However, the mission didn’t always go so smoothly – just a year after it launched, Opportunity lost steering to one of its front wheels. Since then, it has gradually been worn down by the Red Planet, losing the use of its flash memory drive and, in 2017, losing steering to its other front wheel. While engineers were able to find clever ways of keeping it operational, the 2018 dust storm proved fatal.

Its final eerie photo was taken on 10 June as it became engulfed in the sand storm and its camera was shrouded in static.

A black and white static image shot by Opportunity with a pitch black bar at the bottom.

By the time this photo was taken, all that was left was static noise from the camera. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Speaking with Mashable, Bill Nelson, chief of the Opportunity mission’s engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “We are looking at an incredibly small amount of sunlight – 0.002pc of the normal sunlight that we would expect to see.

“If you were there, it would be late twilight. Your human eye would still be able to make out some features, but it would be very dark.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic