Last month, the universe had to say goodbye to Opportunity, one of NASA’s plucky little Mars rovers that scoured the Red Planet for 15 years looking for clues about the Martian past. A massive, planetary dust storm laid the little bot low, but before it winked out permanently Opportunity sent back a final group of images, just released by NASA.
Between May 13 and June 10, 2018, Opportunity explored the Perseverance Valley, an area the size of two football fields that descends the western rim of the Endeavor Crater, snapping 354 images that NASA has stitched together into a 360 degree panorama, reports Ashley Strickland at CNN. A full-size zoomable version of the image can be found on NASA’s website.
“This final panorama embodies what made our Opportunity rover such a remarkable mission of exploration and discovery,” project manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena says in the release. “To the right of center you can see the rim of Endeavor Crater rising in the distance. Just to the left of that, rover tracks begin their descent from over the horizon and weave their way down to geologic features that our scientists wanted to examine up close. And to the far right and left are the bottom of Perseverance Valley and the floor of Endeavour crater, pristine and unexplored, waiting for visits from future explorers.”
Some of the frames on the lower left of the image are in black and white because the rover did not have time record them using its green and violet filters before the Martian dust obscured its solar panels.
These were not the absolute last images sent by the rover. Mike Wall at Space.com reports Opportunity also sent two black and white thumbnail images of a dark, dusty sky with a white dot, the sun, barely peeking through. Its last image is an incomplete and noisy black and white snapshot that looks like static sent on June 10.
That’s the last time engineers had contact with the little rover. Over the course of eight months NASA sent recovery commands to Opportunity 835 times, but the machine did not respond, a victim of the dust storm. Last month they finally declared the mission over.
Not that NASA can complain—the mission exceeded expectations in every way. Wall at Space.com reports that Opportunity and its twin Spirit were launched in 2003 and reached Mars in 2004. Originally the rovers were designed to last just 90 days and travel 1,100 yards in search of signs of water. Opportunity instead lasted 15 years and traveled 28.06 miles, snapping 217,594 raw images. Spirit got stuck in soft dirt and stopped communicating in 2010. It was officially declared dead in 2011.
Opportunity found ample evidence that water once flowed on Mars, including the presence of hematite, gypsum and other compounds that—at least on Earth—usually form in the presence of water, reports Elizabeth Howell at Space.com. After surviving 21 months on Mars, Opportunity’s mission was extended and the craft was sent to the rim of the Victoria Crater in 2006. In July 2007, it encountered a huge dust storm that almost ended its mission, dropping its power levels to critical levels. But it pulled through, and took the risky move of driving down into the crater itself and explored its geology for a year. In August 2008, it crawled up the other rim of the Victoria Crater. That’s when researchers decided to swing for the fences and headed Opportunity toward the Endeavor crater, 13 miles away.
Geologists believed the crater contained exposed rocks from the Noachian Period 3.6 to 4.2 billion years ago. “The chance to study Mars’ Noachian Period had long been something of a Holy Grail mission for planetary geologists,” writes A.J.S. Rayl at the Planetary Society. It took three years for Opportunity to make the trek to the crater, which it reached in August 2011. Over the course of nearly seven years, it explored the unique geology of Endeavor, finding new rocks and materials seen nowhere else on the planet and identified a whole host of targets for future missions.
NASA’s large 10-foot-long Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, is still exploring the planet, though it is currently experiencing glitches in its main computer. Another rover similar to Curiosity is expected to launch in July 2020. NASA will conduct a contest to allow students from K-12 to name the new rover some time this year, just as long as they don’t choose Rover McRoverface.