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The dramatic image of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s shadow was taken on sol 180 (July 26, 2004) by the rover’s front hazard-avoidance camera as the rover moved farther into Endurance Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

After exploring the Mars surface for more than 14 years, NASA’s golf cart-sized rover Opportunity went dead on Wednesday. The rover stopped communicating with Earth after a severe dust storm on Mars disrupted its functioning. Amid several failed attempts by the space agency to restore contact, engineers at the Space Flight Operations Facility in California on Tuesday made one last try to revive Opportunity but to no avail, NASA said.

The last, and now considered as final, communication made by Opportunity was received on June 10, 2018.

Rover Opportunity (Twitter/MarsRovers)

“It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press release issued by the space agency.

“And when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration,” he said.

Opportunity had a twin

As part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, two identical solar-powered rovers: Opportunity and Spirit, landed at the Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum respectively in January, 2004, with a mission to “search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils for clues to past water activity on Mars”.

Spirit lasted 20 times longer than its original design until its final communication with Earth on March 22, 2010.

Vital discoveries

As Opportunity explored craters on Mars by travelling over more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its final resting spot – Perseverance Valley. The rover had to its credit several vital discoveries.

It gathered crucial evidence that demonstrated that the red planet in the past was warm and wet enough to possibly sustain life, NASA said. That evidence included the discovery of white veins of the mineral gypsum, an indication of water moving through underground fractures.

“From the get-go, Opportunity delivered on our search for evidence regarding water,” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator of the rovers’ science payload at Cornell University.

“And when you combine the discoveries of Opportunity and Spirit, they showed us that ancient Mars was a very different place from Mars today, which is a cold, dry, desolate world. But if you look to its ancient past, you find compelling evidence for liquid water below the surface and liquid water at the surface.”

Went way beyond its expectancy

Opportunity worked longer on the surface of Mars than any other robot, it was originally designed to explore the surface of Mars for three months but went on for more than 14 years.

It also drove a total of 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers), clinching the record for the longest drive on another world to its credit in 2014.

Was quite a photographer

Opportunity and spirit, according to NASA, were “avid documentarians”. The rovers transmitted over 3,42,000 raw images that were later put online. The twins also produced more than 30 stunning 360-degree-colour panoramas.

In this navigation camera raw image, NASA’s Opportunity Rover looks back over its own tracks on Aug. 4, 2010. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The most memorable images Opportunity took — including ripples of sand that resembled waves on water, patches of jumbled rock on a crater rim, whirling dust devils and its own tracks along a ridge — revealed the otherworldly beauty of Mars and the drama of exploration, NASA said.

A precedent  to follow

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers mission, however, continues uninterrupted with Curiosity, which arrived on Mars in 2012. The space agency is preparing for future launches, commencing from 2020, after gaining valuable inputs from Spirit and Opportunity.

“When I think of Opportunity, I will recall that place on Mars where our intrepid rover far exceeded everyone’s expectations,” John Callas, manager of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project said.

“But what I suppose I’ll cherish most is the impact Opportunity had on us here on Earth. It’s the accomplished exploration and phenomenal discoveries. It’s the generation of young scientists and engineers who became space explorers with this mission,” Callas added.