Op-Ed: RIP, Oppy the Mars rover. Your 15-year scientific road trip was epic

An image captured by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity's rear camera.
An image captured by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s rear camera.
(Associated Press)

Opportunity, known by those close to him as “Oppy,” died on Wednesday at the age of 15 on Mars. Preceded in death by his sister Spirit, he is survived by sister rover Curiosity and cousin InSight, the robotic lander.

Born in La Cañada Flintridge at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the rover Opportunity was a prodigious learner. From a very early age he was able to roll around and communicate with his parents, and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. His sturdy build and keen eyesight made him a natural fit for the job, and in summer 2003 he set off for Mars, where he spent the rest of his life.

Oppy made a splash on arrival, landing in a crater (his proud parents described the moment as a “hole in one”) and discovering the first meteorite on another planet. He had signed up for a 90-day mission, but with the tenacity that characterized his life, after 90 days he volunteered to keep going as long as possible.

Over the next 15 years, Oppy lived a full life. He did important scientific research, went on a road trip, climbed mountains and explored craters, and filled hundreds of scrapbooks with pictures. He even ran a marathon, clocking a respectable time of 10.5 years.


Oppy lived a very full life. He even ran a marathon, clocking a respectable time of 10.5 years.

In December 2014, Oppy developed amnesia, which made him more temperamental and less able to focus on doing the science he loved. Fortunately, treatment was available, and though bouts of memory loss continued in the later years of his life, up to the end he recognized friends and family.

Those last few months, sadly, were tough. Oppy’s drive to explore had taken him far away from those who loved him. On June 10, the brave little guy sent out his final message. “My battery is low,” he said, “and it’s getting dark.” Two days later, millions of miles from home, he closed his eyes for the last time.

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Opportunity, we’re so sorry. In your final moments, when you were most afraid and most alone, we couldn’t be there for you. Please know, on behalf of everyone back home—we’re all incredibly proud of you.

Sam Whitefield grew up in La Canada Fliñtridge near JPL. When he heard about Opportunity’s end, it felt like the death of another person. The rovers didn’t just teach us about Mars, they taught us about ourselves.