February 14, 2019: NASA Declares Opportunity and MER Mission ‘Complete’ It happened last night. At around 8 pm February 12, 2019, Pacific Standard Time (PST), as the strains of Billie Holiday singing “I’ll Be Seeing You” filled the Space Flight Operations Center at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the final commands were transmitted to Opportunity, the Mars Exploration Rover that defied all odds – and with the help of her team on Earth – turned a 90-day mission into an overland expedition that lasted nearly 15 years, inspired generations of young people, produced volumes of new data, rewrote textbooks, changed the way humanity saw the Red Planet, created a culture that remarkably blended science and engineering in a way no other NASA mission ever has, and so much more.
In the minutes or hours after the robot sent what would be her final missive from Mars on June 10, 2018, the worst planet-encircling dust event (PEDE) that NASA scientists have ever observed stopped Opportunity in her tracks. As the robot hunkered down about halfway down Perseverance Valley, inside Endeavour Crater’s western rim, the storm pummeled the site with dust. The rover has been silent ever since.
The final ‘Hail Mary’ in a series of last-ditch efforts that began in late January was bolstered by all the hope the MER team launched with the commands. But MER Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, and NASA and JPL officials who were also present with the Deep Space Network’s Aces as they launched the transmissions, heard only sounds of silence.
And so, after a total of more than 835 commands sent since last June, the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Thomas Zurbuchen, declared the MER mission “complete” at a press conference and celebration held Wednesday, February 13, 2019, at JPL, the first home of all NASA’s Mars rovers.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Squyres told The MER Update, pausing. “But it had to happen sometime, right?
“Everything comes to an end and this is coming to an end. Can you think of a better way to go out? After 14-and-half years, we get killed off by the worst dust storm observed in 40 years. This is the final act and the biggest thing in my career and the biggest thing in my life except for my kids, and it feels okay. We should be so proud of what we’ve done, so proud of what we have accomplished – coaxed a solar-powered rover through 14-and-a-half years on Mars when it was designed for three months. It’s astonishing.” [Much more at link]