Ground control to Opportunity: Mission Accomplished!
After 15 years of being the bedrock of NASA's research on Mars, Opportunity was put to rest on February 13, 2019. In a statement published by NASA stating, "No response from Opportunity since Sol 5111 (June 10, 2018)" shows the last picture Oppy would ever send – a pixelated jargon of radio static signifying its passing. NASA's best attempts at trying to re-establish communications with Opportunity would be in vain. And when NASA finally said mission complete on behalf of Opportunity, they bid adieu to their crowning achievement Oppy.
The team at NASA affectionately called Opportunity "Oppy" and it was only meant to last for 90 days. Its mission was to check for past signs of water activity on the dusty dunes of Mars. Oppy's journey began on the night of July 7, 2003, and it would reach Mars on January 25, 2004. The Red Planet is a barren and tumultuous planet with never-ending dust storms and harsh winters. But the little golf cart-sized rover managed to traverse 45km of Mars in its lifetime, collecting heaps of data along the way. Opportunity even found the weathered rocks called "aeolian rocks" – iron-rich spherical shaped mineral deposits nicknamed as "blueberries" and the first meteorite on another planet known as Heat Shield Rocks.
Afterwards, Opportunity ventured into a deep crater called Endurance and spent two years exploring Victoria Crater, both of which showed the watery pasts of a Mars foregone. But Oppy's greatest feat came on December 8, 2011, when the rover found bright veins of a mineral deposited by water, on the edge of the Endeavour Crater. This gave NASA what they needed, signs of freshwater on the Red Planet.
By March 2015, Oppy had completed its marathon of 42KM of Mars. A life on Mars which began at Eagle Crater ultimately ended in 2018 on the outskirts of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity will go down in history as the most travelled off-world rover. But there were a lot of factors involved in Opportunity's success story and it starts with its batteries.
According to John Callas, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Oppy's main battery has had 5,000 charge-discharge cycles in its lifespan and still had about 85% of its capacity left when the mission-ending dust storm had finally hit. And the rover would have probably survived this dust storm too had it not been for Oppy's glitched heater. The heater on Oppy's robotic arm had been stuck in the "on" position ever since it landed on Mars and for all these years, scientists at NASA would have to shut down everything on the rover, even the crucial survival heaters every night so that its one bad heater wouldn't drain away crucial battery power.
Oppy finally lost communication with NASA during the penultimate sand storm, which messed its mission clock up preventing it from going into deep sleep.
Opportunity had survived many a sandstorm during its life on Mars till finally becoming undone. No thought was spared from NASA's behalf, but at the end of the day, they couldn't reach Opportunity. But maybe in 100 years, we just might be able to get to the little rover ourselves and thank him for all that he has done for science and humanity.