The scientists and engineers who work with the Mars rovers don’t think of them as robots. They regard them almost like their own children.
So Wednesday brought considerable sadness combined with a fair amount of pride to the folks at NASA, which pronounced the Mars rover Opportunity dead after a record-setting 15-year run. It had stopped communicating more than eight months ago.
On one hand, the robot’s extended mission had been an unqualified success, as Opportunity confirmed water once flowed in Mars and roamed the planet’s surface for an unprecedented 28 miles.
On the other hand, no parent wants to leave a child behind, even when knowing ahead of time the separation was inevitable.
Opportunity and its identical twin, Spirit, outlived and outperformed expectations on opposite sides of Mars. The golf cart-size rovers were designed to operate as geologists for just three months after reaching Mars in January 2004. Spirit was ruled dead in 2011, a year after it got stuck in sand and stopped communicating.
During a news conference at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, project manager John Callas recalls watching the rovers’ early development at a room he likened to a neonatal care facility.
“During those times when it was just me, you developed a special bond. They’d become your children,’’ Callas said. “And that theme I think is true for so many people here today. They had that strong connection. So, 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.’’
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Opportunity had not been heard from since June 10, when a massive dust storm that lasted months blocked the sunlight powering the rover through solar panels. Unable to activate its battery-powered heaters, the robot was susceptible to the bitter Martian cold, which only got more intense in the winter months.
Callas said the loss of power caused the vehicle’s clock to get scrambled and the heater to stay on, draining the batteries.
Flight controllers tried for months to re-establish contact, to no avail. On Tuesday, NASA made one last attempt after more than 1,000 failed recovery commands in previous months. It didn’t succeed.
Through the sadness, agency officials could still appreciate the mission’s achievements.
“We’re celebrating with emotion. Science is an emotional affair,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “It’s a team sport, and that’s what we’re celebrating today. I will never forget the amazing work that happened here. It transformed our understanding of our planet.’’
Even before the last-ditch attempt to revive Opportunity, team members were eulogizing the long-lasting robot.
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“Opportunity’s just been a workhorse,’’ said deputy project scientist Abigail Fraeman, who as a student at 16 was inside the control center as part of an outreach program when the rover landed on Mars. “It’s really a testament, I think, to how well the mission was designed and how careful the team was in operating the vehicle.”
NASA has two other rovers, the nuclear-powered Curiosity and the newly arrived InSight, as well as spacecraft orbiting around Mars to carry on the mission of exploring the planet.
But Opportunity won’t be soon forgotten.
“It has given us a larger world,” Callas said. “Mars is now part of our neighborhood.”
Contributing: The Associated Press