Science

RIP, Oppy the Mars Rover

After 15 years, the adventurous spacecraft has finally bit the dust.

The Mars rover Opportunity.
Opportunity, a Mars rover.
NASA/JPL/Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC

Opportunity began her life on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004. This week, at age 15, NASA has officially declared the golf cart–size rover dead following a battle with dust that prevented her from charging her batteries.

The rover, according to those who knew her, enjoyed taking pictures of her surroundings, identifying and characterizing sedimentary rocks, driving around backward (so as to protect her fragile front wheel), looking at clouds, proving that there once was, without a doubt, water on another planet, and having a verified Twitter account. She was on the receiving end of many postcards (at least, in the same way Santa is).

Opportunity—Oppy, as she was sometimes known—was only supposed to live for 90 days, but was able to keep going as wind cleared the dust from her solar panels. (Plus, NASA has made a habit of underestimating the amount of time its crafts will have, like a parent who is really just hoping you make it to college without totaling the car.) Notable harrowing physical stunts Oppy pulled include running into a sand dune and hanging out in a crater. The New York Times dubbed her “an unexpected endurance athlete” for rolling over the distance of a marathon during her time on Mars, a particularly impressive feat given how far she was from any sort of repair station.

Oppy is the descendant of a long line of spacecraft that endeavored to leave Earth and is survived by her younger sibling, the Curiosity rover. While she’s hardly the first spacecraft to be anthropomorphized—and unlike others of her kind, she didn’t even live-tweet her own death!—there was a purposeful effort to make her an avatar of exploration that was relatable to humans. Formally named MER-B before she was “born” (if we can call landing on Mars a moment of birth), the agency referred to her and her “twin” (MER-A) as “robotic geologists.” The agency held a Name the Rovers Contest, which a 9-year-old Siberian-born adoptee won. “In America, I can make all my dreams come true,” she wrote in her essay. “Thank you for the ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Opportunity.’”

If robots are natural protagonists in stories about otherwise entirely alien worlds, Opportunity was a mini reality star, threading stories about space rocks (rocks: hard to make interesting) into a larger narrative journey. She was deft at taking selfies; she appeared as a character in comic strips, pictured missing home and earnestly hoping that she was doing a good job at being a rover. When she went dark last year, she was even the subject of a grass-roots social media campaign, #saveoppy, with the goal that NASA do all it could to revive her.

Anthropomorphizing space robots makes sense as a PR tactic especially in an age where much of our country is increasingly skeptical of science, including those holding the purse strings for government agencies. Cute things are plain easier to get behind than ugly, or even just amorphous ones. Adorable endangered animals receive more donations than bats and snakes. It’s gut-wrenching to take a knife to a bundle of wires and gears when they’re wrapped in a big-eyed-dinosaur shell.

Is it potentially problematic that scientific endeavors might fare better when they’re adorable? Sure. But it also feels nice to celebrate a research accomplishment—precious, and incredible in ways that can be hard to grasp on their own—as though it were a life. NASA invites you to commemorate the rover with the hashtag #ThanksOppy. If only all important implements of research had such charisma.