On February 13th, NASA announced the end of the Mars Rover Opportunity, citing a potential for dust layering its solar panels, which prevented it from refueling after a 2018 dust storm on the Red Planet, as the cause of its demise. The golf-cart-sized robot landed on Mars in 2004 with a life-expectancy minimum of 90 days. The Opportunity's time on Mars amassed a stunning 14 years of travel encompassing approximately 28 miles, enabled by Martian winds that helped to clean off its solar panels. It captured over 217,000 images and helped to confirm the now-accepted scientific truth that the barren planet was once an aquatic sanctuary, shot through with rivers and sloshing with seas and oceans.
On the evening of February 12th, the Opportunity sent out a final transmission that was translated to "My battery is low and it's getting dark." Despite the presence of another Mars Rover (Curiosity) on the same planet, the sheer distance separating the two robots — approximately 5,200 miles — would make it near impossible for the Rover to reach Opportunity in a timely fashion. In order to navigate the unforgiving Martian terrain, these Rovers require constant guidance from Earth.
With such a long delay between message transmission and subsequent reception, even a trek of several feet can take days. In addition, the Curiosity robot is not a repair bot, and as such lacks the necessary tools that would be needed in order to repurpose its onboard instruments in order to clean off the dust from Opportunity's solar panels. Adding to the bleak prognosis, the timing of the shutdown is unfortunate with the current arrival of the Martian winter, which could compound the damage already done to Opportunity since it's no longer able to keep itself warm.
While the Opportunity's passing is certainly a sad outcome of time, it leaves behind a transformational legacy in the manner with which NASA conducts searches for signs of extraterrestrial life on other planets. One of these advancements includes a Mars 2020 mission featuring a new Rover modeled off of the Curiosity's structure, as well as a much-anticipated helicopter. The mission will land at Jezero Crater on February 18th, 2021, to look for traces of ancient life on Mars.
In addition, Europe has a newly-dubbed Mars Rover currently in development named Rosalind Franklin which is scheduled to launch in the same time window as the NASA Mars 2020 mission. That Rover is expected to search for traces of life within the top six and a half feet of the Martian surface. So while the Opportunity may be gone, its work will be remembered and utilized to build upon a new generation of robots to continue the search for extraterrestrial life.