On the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 12, I stood on an observation deck overlooking mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to witness a final attempt to contact the Opportunity Mars rover.
We had lost contact with Opportunity in June when a planetwide dust storm darkened the Martian skies to historic levels. Unable to charge her solar-powered battery, Opportunity fell silent. During the weeks it took for the storm to abate, Opportunity’s engineers studied thousands of lines of code in the rover’s fault-protection software, which had been written decades ago by people who had long since left the project, to figure out the best way to get Opportunity to talk to us again. They came up with an ingenious plan to re-establish contact using commands that would tell the rover how and when to phone home. If there was any way to recover the vehicle, our engineers would do it.
We hailed more than 1,000 times, always met by silence. By Tuesday, the dark Martian winter was quickly approaching and we knew we had reached the endgame. NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen traveled to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to tell the team in person this night would be our last chance to contact the rover. Looking ahead, the odds of recovery were just too low.
Tuesday’s communication attempts began with a “wake-up song” played at mission control. The mission’s principal investigator, Steve Squyres, had chosen “I’ll Be Seeing You,” as performed by Billie Holiday. At 8:10 p.m., Holiday’s wistful voice floated up from the command floor. Tears welled in my eyes.
Opportunity — or Oppy, as we affectionately call her — has been in my heart since she touched down on Martian soil 15 years ago, in January 2004. I was 16 and a high school student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. I loved space, and I couldn’t believe my luck when the Planetary Society offered me the chance to watch Opportunity land at JPL through its Red Rover Goes to Mars program. I was with the science team when we saw Oppy’s first images of Mars pop into view on large projection screens that surrounded the room. Instead of the rocky volcanic plains previous Mars landers had seen, Opportunity revealed a sea of sand with a strip of white bedrock poking through.
I’m not sure how many people can point to the specific moment they decided what they wanted to be when they grew up, but I can say with certainty that was the night I decided I would spend my life studying the geology of other worlds.
After my freshman year of college in 2006, then-Cornell professor Jim Bell, who was the instrument lead for Opportunity’s color camera, agreed to take me on as a summer student to work with data from Opportunity and her twin rover, Spirit. Three years later I headed to graduate school, where I helped with Opportunity tactical operations under the guidance of Ray Arvidson, the mission’s deputy principal investigator. Now several years post-doctorate, I’m a staff research scientist at JPL, and I have been the deputy project scientist for Opportunity for the past three years.
Opportunity and Spirit, which completed her mission in 2011, were by every measure extraordinary successes. These little robots smashed through expectations of mere 90-day lifetimes, drove miles farther than they were designed for and revolutionized our understanding of the Red Planet. Scientists like me will continue to pore over their data for decades.
Spirit and Opportunity also captivated the public’s imagination. The mission’s images were immediately posted online, effectively allowing anyone, anywhere in the world to explore Mars in real time with us.
I think it’s because of Opportunity’s extraordinary successes that we feel such a sense of loss as her mission ends. Over 15 years, we’ve come to think of Opportunity as a friend. We’ve taken pride in keeping her safe and keeping her exploring. For many, the worst part will be saying goodbye to our extremely tightknit mission team: No more tactical meetings to attend every morning at 9 a.m. No more spirited weekly science discussions on Tuesdays at 1 p.m., debating the meaning of the latest measurements.
But for me, losing Oppy is like losing the magnet that directs my life’s compass. My career trajectory is inextricably intertwined with Opportunity’s. Over the past 15 years, science teachers and mentors have become colleagues, and these colleagues became lifelong friends. Completing the mission is like closing a most wonderful chapter of my life. I’m so proud to have been a small part of it.
Around 9:45 p.m. on Tuesday, after putting in a request to extend the planned listening time just a few minutes to make sure we didn’t miss anything, Opportunity project manager John Callas told the radio operators they could stop. In stark contrast to the fanfare of the landing night I remember so vividly from 15 years ago, Callas simply stated, “I wanted to say with the completion of tonight’s commanding, this concludes operations for MER1, spacecraft ID 253.”
Abigail Fraeman is the deputy project scientist for the Mars Exploration Rover mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.