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February 15, 2019

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Opportunity lost on Mars after long exploration

A REMARKABLY durable NASA rover designed to roll along the surface of Mars for three months, has stopped communicating with Earth after 15 years of service.

Engineers lost contact with the solar-powered vehicle, named Opportunity, on June 10 during a dust storm that encircled Mars. Since then, NASA officials made numerous attempts to reach the six-wheeled rover, which is about the size of a golf cart.

Opportunity’s equipment may have been compromised by the storm, which struck while the rover was at a site called Perseverance Valley and blotted out sunlight needed by the robot’s solar panels.

The vehicle was built to drive 1km, but ended up covering 45km and lasting longer on Mars than any other robot sent to the surface of the Red Planet.

On Tuesday, engineers sent a transmission in a last attempt to revive the rover, but heard nothing back, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“It is, therefore, that I am standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude that I declare the Opportunity mission as complete,” Zurbuchen said at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Planet was wet in past

As Opportunity explored craters on Mars, it gathered evidence to demonstrate the planet in the ancient past was wet and warm enough to possibly sustain life, NASA said.

That included the discovery of white veins of the mineral gypsum, an indication of water moving through underground fractures.

Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004, a few weeks after its rover twin, Spirit. Spirit ended its mission in 2010 after becoming stuck in soft soil.

The Opportunity mission cost more than US$1 billion, with about 300 JPL staff members dedicated to the project soon after it landed, John Callas, project manager for Mars Exploration Rovers, said.

NASA’s InSight spacecraft touched down safely on the surface of Mars in November, with instruments to detect planetary seismic rumblings never measured anywhere but Earth.

InSight and the next Mars rover mission, scheduled for 2020, are both seen as precursors for eventual human exploration of Mars, an objective NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said might be as early as the mid-2030s.


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