The Mars Rover: An Obituary

Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20

Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20


NASA’s Opportunity rover, more commonly known as the “Mars Rover,” began its life on July 7, 2003, when it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004. Since then, it has traveled many miles in search of evidence that Mars once supported life, far exceeding its original 90-day mission. But it couldn’t outrun the reaper forever. Scientists have not made contact with the intrepid explorer since June of 2018, when it was buried by a dust storm. After months of trying, hopes of bringing the rover back online seem faint.

According to the New York Times, NASA had hoped that with time, wind would clean off its solar panels and Opportunity would wake back up to continue its trek across the red planet. With the dust storm long over, they have continued to send commands to the rover in an attempt to resolve minor system malfunctions, without response.

Opportunity has been characterized as “an engineering marvel” by Visiting Lecturer of Astronomy Thomas Burbine, who praised its longevity. “This rover has operated on Mars for over 14 years [and] outlasted its sister rover Spirit by eight years,” he said.

Humans have been trying to explore Mars for the past 60 years with varying degrees of success, starting with two probes launched by the Soviet Union in 1960 which failed to depart Earth’s orbit. Following this was a series of successes, such as the U.S.’ Mariner 4, the flyby which sent back the first close-up photographs of Mars, and failures, like Mars 1969A, a Soviet spacecraft that did not make it off the launchpad. The first successful landing was the Mars 3 probe in 1971, which sent 20 seconds of video footage to an orbiter before failing.

Opportunity’s demise follows that of its twin, Spirit, which landed on Mars in January 2004 and passed away in March of 2010, and by its younger sibling, Phoenix after its three-month mission in the Martian arctic in 2008. Opportunity is survived by its younger sibling, Curiosity, which continues to work on Mars, forging ahead in NASA’s ongoing mission to understand our solar system.

Curiosity has been wandering Mars since 2012 and is currently studying the remains of ancient Martian lakes. The most recent addition to the family is NASA’s InSight, which landed on Mars in November 2018 and will collect data on the planet’s seismic activity.

Of the various probes sent to Mars over the decades, many are now drifting somewhere in orbit around the sun, having completed the flyby they were designed for. Others orbit Mars, communicating with rovers on the surface. Some lie broken on the dusty surface of the planet, with no one able to repair or bury them.

There is no memorial service planned for the deceased rover, which is frankly disappointing to this writer, who thought there would be people in the world weird enough to hold a funeral for a geologist robot.