Opportunity Is Dead: NASA Declares End To Mars Rover's Mission NASA's six-wheeled rover landed on the red planet in January 2004 for what was billed as a 90-day mission. The plucky robot was still going until a dust storm on Mars last summer killed it.
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NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity Is Officially Declared Dead

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NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity Is Officially Declared Dead

NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity Is Officially Declared Dead

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NASA has officially declared an end to the mission of Mars rover known as Opportunity. It operated for more than 14 years - not bad for a mission that was originally scheduled for 90 days. NPR's Joe Palca has this remembrance.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: On Saturday night, June 24, 2004, engineers, scientists and VIPs jammed into Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena filled with hope, but also a kind of dread. Just three weeks earlier, Opportunity's twin rover, Spirit, had landed successfully. And the question was, could NASA engineers really pull off the devilishly difficult feat of landing on Mars twice in a row? Turns out they could.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Retrorocket ignition on my mark. Mark. At this time the RAD rocket...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: RAD has fired.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have confirmation...

PALCA: Retrorockets brought Opportunity to a halt just above the surface, then air bags were to inflate, allowing the golf-cart-sized rover to bounce safely to a landing.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We're getting a bounce signal.

PALCA: And with that, NASA was two-for-two. A few hours later, Opportunity sent back pictures of its landing site at Meridiani Planum.

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STEVEN SQUYRES: I will attempt no science analysis because it looks like nothing I've ever seen before in my life.

PALCA: That's mission principal investigator Steven Squyres of Cornell University speaking from the control room to reporters assembled nearby as pictures from the rover streamed in.

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SQUYRES: We knew going into this that at a fine scale, the texture of Meridiani Planum was unlike almost anything else on Mars. As we had expected - holy smokes.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Laughter).

SQUYRES: I'm sorry. I'm just blown away by this.

PALCA: Looking back, Squyres says Opportunity wasn't just a technical triumph. He says there were numerous scientific discoveries.

SQUYRES: OK, I'll give you two. The first was right at the beginning at the landing site.

PALCA: Squyres said Opportunity found evidence that briny water had once sloshed around on what is now a very dry planet.

SQUYRES: The other thing was - then, years and years later, we got to the rim of a very ancient crater, which is where Opportunity is now.

PALCA: There, Squyres says the rover found evidence of what's called hydrothermal events, where hot water percolates through rocks, changing their mineral content.

But as important as Opportunity was for science, it was also important for the future of science. Squyres has given lots of talks about the mission. And he says, often, a young scientist or engineer will come up to him afterwards and say...

SQUYRES: You know, when I was 8 years old, I saw you guys land on Mars, and it made me decide I wanted to do this. And that's happened to me not once or twice. It's happened to me a bunch of times.

PALCA: Do this, meaning become a scientist. That's certainly what happened to Keri Bean. She was in high school when she saw a documentary about Opportunity called "Roving Mars."

KERI BEAN: I especially remember them showing the landing footage. And when they got the confirmation the spacecraft landed, they were all cheering. They were so excited. And I was really drawn to the idea of exploring and being so interested and caring about something that much.

PALCA: Bean went to graduate school, where she worked on the rover as a student and ultimately landed a job at JPL, where she joined the Opportunity mission team. Last night, she helped send the last radio signals trying to wake up the rover.

BEAN: Me, personally, it's been really hard because this is a project I've worked on for over a third of my life at this point. And so just to lose that all of a sudden is really tough.

But at least it was Mars that killed her. It wasn't the rover failing or something else. It was Mars. And I feel like that's really the only appropriate death for her at this point.

PALCA: It was a good run, but it was going to end someday. And today's the day. Joe Palca, NPR News.

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