Terror on Mars: The Asphyxiation of Opportunity

Release Date:

The Ghostbusters are not afraid of ghosts and the robotic explorers of our time are not afraid of the challenges encountered in space.  Rovers just go. They follow issued commands, and do their work, but eventually die alone.

This October we remember NASA’s Opportunity rover, one of the most well-loved rovers of all time, lethally hushed by a gigantic dust storm that impeded sunlight from reaching 'her' solar panels.

Opportunity, nick-named Oppy, landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, in Meridiani Planum, and worked tirelessly for over 14 years and traveled 28 miles, both record-breaking events. Opportunity had a list of objectives mainly to look for clues to Mars’ watery past, and sent back thousands of raw images from the Red planet, some of which scientists say indicate that water was present on Mars in the past. 

Opportunity on Mars

Opportunity: Photo credit: NASA.

Although Mars is infamous for moderate dust storms, "Once every three Mars years (about 5 ½ Earth years), on average, normal storms grow into planet-encircling dust storms. . ." said Michael Smith, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

In June 2018, a planet-encircling dust storm hit Mars while Opportunity was working in Perseverance Valley. As time went by, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission team became progressively concerned. This beast of a storm was beginning to block out more and more of the sunlight to Opportunity’s solar panels which provide power and recharge her batteries. 

Simulated views of a darkening Martian sky

This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA's Opportunity rover's point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity's final view during the dust storm (June 2018). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

Opportunity soon fell into a coma to conserve battery power in hopes that when the storm subsided, the rover would be wakened, and recovery commands could begin.  But the storm persisted and showed no indication of abatement. It was also cold, and Opportunity’s battery-powered heaters were necessary to keep the robot geologist warm, and it was not clear whether there was enough power to sustain the frigid cold.

All communication ceased from Opportunity June 10 of 2018. In September 2018, the dust storm had abated enough to begin efforts to rouse Opportunity. The hope was if the solar panels were covered with dust, an expected windy period may have cleared the solar panels. NASA listened for Opportunity to phone home, and engineers continued to ping Opportunity with commands,  but there was no response.

And what the MER team feared most came to fruition:  In February 2019, she was declared dead of which the Martian storm was the blame.

Read in depth about Opportunity’s life.