What Happens to NASA’s Opportunity Rover Now that it’s Dead?

In May 2018 a massive dust storm began on Mars. Due to the enormous dust cloud, NASA's solar-powered Opportunity Rover ran out of battery. NASA has made several attempts to revive the rover since the storm ended, but after one last try to contact it yesterday, NASA concluded that Opportunity has died. So now the question is what happens to its body?

Human artefacts such as Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster don’t last very long past our protective biosphere. Live Science previously reported that solar radiation has most probably destroyed the car. However, the Tesla Roadster is made of lots of organic fibres and plastics whereas the Mars rovers are made of more robust materials.

Jeff Moersch who is part of the Opportunity team and artefacts of planetary science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville said that although he's not an expert in the rover's engineering Opportunity does have some plastic parts that could eventually break down under the sun’s radiation, such as its insulation.

However, he added that by and large, Opportunity won’t change much if and when astronauts come across it. But it will most likely be very dusty.

However, that would assume that astronauts land on Mars within the next century or two.

Opportunity was in operation for as long as it was because regular Martian winds would routinely blow the dust off its body. However, over more extended periods, it's unclear who will win either the dust or the wind. 

But Moersch added that he doubts the rover will end up buried in a mound.

On Earth, if something is old and dead and sits in the same place for millions of years, it ends up eventually getting buried. However, that is due to the effects of water and plate tectonics, according to Moersch. These factors don’t exist in the same way on Mars.

Moersch explained that over millions of years there would be to get impacts that knock up airborne Mars dirt, known as ejecta and that ejecta will very slowly resurface on Mars and bury things that were on the surface.

If the rover is left on Mars for millions and millions of years then if aliens were to land on Mars they would find Opportunity somewhere in the rock record similar to how palaeontologists discover dinosaur fossils on our planet.

Although NASA is hoping to send humans to the Red Planet in the future and possibly establishing a human settlement there, Steve Squyres, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and head of the Opportunity science mission, said during NASA's press conference announcing Opportunity’s death that NASA has no intention of bringing the rover back to Earth. 

However, Moersch stated that if humans do settle Mars, it's not unreasonable to think that they would try and recover and preserve Opportunity. Perhaps it could end up in a museum on the Red Planet, or they could make a national park out of the area where Opportunity explored.

Of course, there is a chance that Opportunity might not become a fossil at all because it’s plausible that in millions of years, a meteor could crash into Opportunity and smash it to pieces.   

Picture credit: NASA