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NASA Mars rover Opportunity dies after exploring red planet for 15 years

Key Points
  • The golf cart-size Opportunity outlived its twin, the Spirit rover, by several years. The two slow-moving vehicles landed on opposite sides of the planet in 2004 for a mission that was meant to last 90 days.
  • Its greatest achievement was discovering, along with Spirit , evidence that ancient Mars had water flowing on its surface and might have been capable of sustaining microbial life.
This illustration made available by NASA shows the rover Opportunity on the surface of Mars. The exploratory vehicle landed on Jan. 24, 2004, and logged more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) before falling silent during a global dust storm in June 2018. There was so much dust in the Martian atmosphere that sunlight could not reach Opportunity's solar panels for power generation.
NASA via AP

NASA's Opportunity, the Mars rover that was built to operate just three months but kept going and going, was pronounced dead Wednesday, 15 years after it landed on the red planet.

The six-wheeled vehicle that helped gather critical evidence that ancient Mars might have been hospitable to life was remarkably spry up until eight months ago, when it was finally doomed by a ferocious dust storm.

Flight controllers tried numerous times to make contact and sent one final series of recovery commands Tuesday night along with one last wake-up song, Billie Holiday's "I'll Be Seeing You." There was no response from space, only silence.

This vista of the Endeavour Crater rim was acquired by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity from the southern end of "Murray Ridge" on the western rim of the crater.
Source: NASA

"This is a celebration of so many achievements," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told team members gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for what amounted to a wake for the intrepid rover.

The golf cart-size Opportunity outlived its twin, the Spirit rover, by several years. The two slow-moving vehicles landed on opposite sides of the planet in 2004 for a mission that was meant to last 90 days.

In the end, Opportunity set endurance and distance records that are years, if not decades, from being broken.

Rolling along until communication ceased last June, Opportunity roamed a record 28 miles (45 kilometers) around Mars and worked longer than any other lander — anywhere, ever.

Opportunity View of 'Private Joseph Field' on Mars
Source: NASA

Its greatest achievement was discovering, along with Spirit , evidence that ancient Mars had water flowing on its surface and might have been capable of sustaining microbial life.

Opportunity was exploring Mars' Perseverance Valley, fittingly, when the fiercest dust storm in decades hit and contact was lost. The storm was so intense that it darkened the sky for months, preventing sunlight from reaching the rover's solar panels.

When the sky finally cleared, the rover remained silent, its internal clock possibly so scrambled that it no longer knew when to sleep or wake up to receive commands. Flight controllers sent more than 1,000 recovery commands to Opportunity, all in vain.

The small spherules on the Martian surface in this close-up image are near Fram Crater, visited by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity during April 2004.
Source: NASA

With project costs reaching about $500,000 a month, NASA decided there was no point in continuing.

As it became clear the rover was about to be declared dead, Bridenstine said that he was encountering people "a little choked up" but that the general mood was one of celebration.

Scientists consider this the end of an era, now that Opportunity and Spirit are both gone.

This late-afternoon view from the front Hazard Avoidance Camera on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows a pattern of rock stripes on the ground, a surprise to scientists on the rover team.
Source: NASA

Opportunity was the fifth of eight spacecraft to successfully land on Mars so far, all belonging to NASA. Only two remain working: the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, prowling around since 2012, and the recently arrived InSight, which just this week placed a heat-sensing, self-hammering probe on the dusty red surface to burrow deep into the planet like a mole.

Three more landers — from the U.S., China and Europe — are due to launch next year.

Bridenstine said the overriding goal is to search for evidence of past or even present microbial life at Mars and find suitable locations to send astronauts, perhaps in the 2030s.

"Here's, I think, an important thing to remember," Bridenstine told the AP. "There are a lot more missions to be done and there are a lot more discoveries to be made. And while it is sad that we move from one mission to the next, it's really all part of one big objective."

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Key Points
  • Both China and Russia, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, are developing military capabilities in space, from laser weapons to ground-based anti-satellite missiles.
  • The agency acts as the Pentagon's top intelligence arm.
  • DIA's report said China "is second only to the United States in the number of operational satellites."