MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., announced today that they will make one last attempt to contact the Mars rover Opportunity. That means after 15 years of exploring, it is likely about to be time to say goodbye.
Here to tell us more is KPCC science reporter Jacob Margolis. Hey, there, Jacob.
JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Hey. How's it going?
KELLY: Good. Thank you, so when did scientists actually lose contact with Opportunity?
MARGOLIS: Yeah. So scientists lost contact on June 10 of 2018. And Opportunity was just bouncing along Perseverance Valley, sucking up tons of energy from the sun. And then a big dust storm hit. It was record-setting. It engulfed the entire planet, and it blocked out the sun. And a message comes back from Opportunity that says, hey, my battery, it's low, and it's very, very dark. And it's the last message they hear from her.
MARGOLIS: And JPL tried to ping her again and again and again, and the assumption was that, you know, maybe it's just some dust on the solar panels keeping it from charging. They hoped that Mars' windy season would clear the panels, but sadly they never got any sort of message back.
KELLY: And why not keep trying? What would be the downside on the off chance that the solar panels kick back in?
MARGOLIS: Yeah, odds of that happening are not very high. They've been trying for a long, long time.
MARGOLIS: And winter is coming. You know, Opportunity would survive temperatures like down to negative 40 degrees Celsius. But winter means negative 100 degrees Celsius sometimes. And Opportunity usually stays warm, just like the way we stay warm, by moving about. But without that, all the electronic parts can actually contract and - when it gets really cold, and it can break.
And even if the batteries do manage to get some solar charge, it'll probably spend that energy turning on its emergency heaters just trying to warm its robot heart. And it's this, like, compartment with all of its most important parts, meaning that the energy will never quite be enough to get through winter and really keep going. So they're kind of hitting the end of what they - of the window here for it.
KELLY: All right. You're making me sad here. Although, I was amazed to read this is a huge success story. The mission was only supposed to last 90 days. And it's been out there and working, up to now, for 15 years.
MARGOLIS: Yeah, I'm feeling actually pretty happy about it - not that it's coming to an end but what was accomplished because 15 years, first off, the Martian surface - is a long time. And Opportunity helps scientists say, like, with certainty that different kinds of liquid water existed on Mars. The Mars environment changed hugely over time and that, like, all these discoveries - it's so exciting - they increased the likelihood that life could have existed on Mars at some point, our understanding of that. That's really cool.
KELLY: So when will they make this one final attempt to...
KELLY: ...Reach out and make contact?
MARGOLIS: Tonight, they're sending a message, which is, like, hey, reset your clock. Go to sleep. Conserve your energy. Wake up when there's more sun and tell us hey. And I talked to Abigail Fraeman. She's deputy project scientist for the rover mission. And if the whole thing ends, you know, she'll have to say bye to the rover, bye to the team she's been with for her entire career. So deep down, part of her - part of her, she's still holding onto this sliver of hope.
ABIGAIL FRAEMAN: We've also learned never - never bet against the rover. So, you know, absolutely, we could hear from it tonight. We just don't know. So that's really hard, every day being like, is today the day? Are we going to hear from it today? OK. No. What about tomorrow?
MARGOLIS: And people have been getting hired away since, like, June onto different projects and stuff. So the team is kind of breaking up already. And unless something magical happens tonight - you know, Oppy, as a lot people have called it, happens to wake up - you know, like, we're going to hear the final decision made by NASA administrators at 11 a.m. Pacific tomorrow.
KELLY: That's KPCC science reporter Jacob Margolis.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.