The Opportunity robot, which has been on Mars since 2004 and confirmed that water once flowed there, was officially declared dead by NASA Wednesday, marking the end of one of the most successful missions in the history of the United States. exploration of the solar system.
"I declare the Opportunity mission over," NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen told a news conference in Pasadena, California, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where American rovers are flying.
"Even if it's a machine, it's hard to say goodbye, it's poignant," said program manager John Callas.
The contact was lost since June 10, 2018, when a dust storm engulfed the red planet, darkened the atmosphere for several months and prevented the rover from recharging its batteries through its solar panels.
After eight months and more than a thousand messages sent from Earth unanswered, NASA had decided that the ultimate attempt would take place Tuesday night. "We have not heard anything in return, so it's time to say goodbye," said John Callas.
Over the months of silence, the community of researchers and engineers involved in the program seemed to have prepared for the mythical rover.
"Engulfed by a giant dust storm encompassing the entire planet: is there any more appropriate end to a mission as perfect and courageous as that of Opportunity?" told AFP Frank Hartman, who drove the robot for seven years.
"It's a celebration of so much success," said NASA boss Jim Bridenstine.
Its record is extraordinary in the history of planetary exploration: 45.16 kilometers traveled, more than the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover on the Moon in the 1970s and more than the rover led by American astronauts of the Apollo 17 mission on the Moon in 1972 (35 km).
Opportunity also sent 217,594 images on Earth, all made available to the public on the internet.
– One active rover –
Robots had landed on Mars before him, but each time in flat places, with no ability to move to explore rocks or mountains visible from a distance.
"We were stuck, and he unlocked us," said Jennifer Trosper, an engineer working on Opportunity's successor, christened March 2020.
"For the general public, Mars has become a dynamic place to explore every day," said Emily Lakdawalla, a space exploration expert who writes for the Planetary Society.
"The rover was so mobile that it seemed like an animated creature," she said. "He had this almost human perspective on the surface of Mars, his eyes were spread like human eyes, at a height of about 1.50 meters above the ground, like humans." It was like an avatar of humanity who was traveling on the surface ".
Opportunity had landed on a great plain where he spent half of his life, crossing miles of flat and even stuck for a few weeks in a sand dune. This is where the robot, with its geology instruments, confirmed that liquid water was once on Mars.
The second part of his life, he climbed the flanks of Endeavor crater, taking spectacular panoramic shots … and discovering veins of gypsum, new proof that water was flowing between these rocks.
His twin Spirit had landed three weeks before him, and died in 2010. Both have largely met the expectations of their designers: their missions theoretically had to last 90 days, times often exceeded but rarely so much …
Only one rover remains active on Mars, also American: Curiosity, which landed in 2012. He is not dependent on the Sun because his energy comes from a small nuclear reactor.
In 2021, it will be joined, on another site of the planet, by the robot recently baptized Rosalind Franklin, within the framework of the European-Russian mission ExoMars.