Now the government is back (at least for the time being), NASA can get back to work on a mission that’s been ongoing for six months: trying to re-establish contact with the Mars rover Opportunity. It’s likely the last attempt that will be made.
On January 25, 2019, the same day the government shutdown ended, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab announced that it would be sending new commands to the rover in an attempt to compel to it contact Earth.
“We have and will continue to use multiple techniques in our attempts to contact the rover,” says John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at JPL, in a press statement. “These new command strategies are in addition to the ‘sweep and beep’ commands we have been transmitting up to the rover since September. With ‘sweep and beep,’ instead of just listening for Opportunity, the project sends commands to the rover to respond back with a beep.”
The sweep and beeps and new attempts will go on for several weeks. There are possibilities that individual parts of Opportunity, like its X-band radio used to contact Earth or its internal clock, that could not be functioning properly. If it’s just an individual part, JPL’s new commands are for Opportunity to start using its backups.
But Callas and the Opportunity team are also realistic. While the rover’s official status is still “Current,” it has been patrolling the Martian surface since 2004. That’s 15 years, not too shabby for a mission that was expected to only last 90 days.
“Over the past seven months we have attempted to contact Opportunity over 600 times,” Callas says. “While we have not heard back from the rover and the probability that we ever will is decreasing each day, we plan to continue to pursue every logical solution that could put us back in touch.”
One thing the Earthbound might relate to: southern Mars is about to enter its bitter winter season, bringing with the dual challenges of increased winds and dropping temperatures. These winds can hit 60 MPH, bringing dust that could easily cover Opportunity’s solar panels. The temperatures can hit as low as -60 degrees Celsius in Opportunity’s region of the planet, which JPL warns could do “irreparable harm” to the unpowered rover’s batteries, internal wiring, and computer systems.
If Opportunity’s days are truly numbered, it will leave behind behind a legacy of unparalleled exploration. Back in 2014 it set the off-Earth driving record and had only been increasing that number until June 10, 2018, when it encountered a dust storm and ceased communications. Martian exploration will benefit from its groundbreaking journey for as long as people want to explore the unforgiving red planet.