Eight months, ago, the Mars Opportunity rover stopped calling us back.
The ostensible cause? A May 2018 dust storm that prevented sunlight from reaching the solar-powered rover, which was sent to Mars in 2004 to search for signs of water. June 10, 2018 was the last time NASA heard from Opportunity. On Tuesday (Feb. 12), the US space agency made a final attempt to reach the rover—including in its final uplink the sounds of Billie Holiday singing “I’ll Be Seeing You.” On Wednesday, NASA confirmed Opportunity’s demise.
Opportunity’s last transmission was… a bunch of data, but effectively rover-speak for “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” It’s widely assumed that the rover ran out of power during the storm, and was unable to exit hibernation once the dust settled. Even if it were alive, Opportunity now faces an unforgiving Martian winter.
In death, the rover joins Spirit, its twin, which reached Mars a few weeks before Opportunity, completed its mission in 2010, and was declared deceased in 2011. The red planet’s budding rover graveyard also includes the Mars Pathfinder, with which NASA lost contact in 1997.
“It’s just like a loved one who’s gone missing,” project manager John Callas told The Associated Press of Opportunity. “[You] keep holding out hope that they will show up and that they’re healthy, but each passing day that diminishes, and at some point you have to say ‘enough’ and move on with your life.”
It has taken the agency awhile to get here. For months, NASA has been on an “active listening” campaign, and sent some 1,000 messages to Opportunity. Over the summer, a soundtrack for workers in the control room played a different song each day as part of the agency’s attempts to rouse the rover—highlights included Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” (You can check out the entire playlist here.)
“We’ll just keep playing until she talks to us,” Michael Staab, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Space.com in August.
A thousand messages? A hopeful pump-up playlist? A presumption that continuing the relationship is possible? Sure, Opportunity is most likely in endless slumber, destined to spend an eternity gathering Martian dust. But that can’t stop us from imagining Opportunity is living its best life—doing donuts, popping wheelies, and otherwise enjoying the freedom that comes from not having to constantly answer to commands from Earth. (“Send data!” “Send photos!” “Find water!” “Share a selfie!”) Let’s just be content with thinking human demands were simply too much for the rover, and the prospect of meeting them any longer too daunting to entertain. Perhaps Opportunity, like so many of us in this age of digital connection, just ghosted.
If so, we wish Opportunity only love and light. May it find a new relationship with Curiosity, a younger, sleeker rover who’s been hanging around Mars since 2012, or the as-yet-unnamed European rover set to land on the planet in 2020. We’re sorry things didn’t work out, and look forward to stalking it on Facebook.