How A Tweet About The Mars Rover Dying Blew Up On The Internet And Made People Cry
"My battery is low and it's getting dark."
That's how I felt when I heard that NASA's Opportunity rover mission was coming to an end after 15 years. That Oppy, the rover, was officially dead, and that it had sent back one last alarming communication to Earth before finding its final resting place in Perseverance Valley on the surface of Mars.
The rover's been around since I was a kid. I remember my dad showing me 3D photos of the rocky martian surface. I was enraptured by the promise of NASA's most ambitious rover mission yet and that we could potentially confirm that water, and maybe even life, once existed there. It's one of my favorite science memories.
So, when I found out that NASA could finally call the mission, I was sad. And like any science reporter, I tweeted about it.
Sad news. Mars rover #Opportunity is probably done. Sometime tonight, a team @NASAJPL will make their final attempt to contact #Oppy. If they can't, they'll likely call the mission. Here's what happened... 1/ pic.twitter.com/oLgATexUHN— Jacob Margolis (@JacobMargolis) February 12, 2019
As of Feb. 16, the thread's received roughly 173,000 likes, 40,900 retweets and 17 million impressions (for whatever that stat's worth).
I clearly wasn't alone in my grief.
Celebrities tweeted about it.
I'm not crying. Nope. My eyeballs just worked out and they are sweating, that's all. 😥 https://t.co/3MdyPgeNht— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) February 13, 2019
Memes were made.
(Shoutout to all of the people making Cowboy Bebop references!)
YouTube videos were posted.
And people even made T-shirts out of it.
AND IT ALL STARTED WITH THIS TWEET
The last message they received was basically, "My battery is low and it's getting dark." They hoped that the windy season would clear dust off the solar panels (if that was the problem). Since then they've been pinging her again and again, every way they knew... 3/— Jacob Margolis (@JacobMargolis) February 12, 2019
In the days following, the phrase separated from the context of the thread and made its way beyond Twitter.
People started talking about it as if they were actually the exact last words that the rover said. The NY Daily News reported it as fact.
JPL contacted me to let me know that they were being inundated with questions about the final message. And while it seemed like most people understood the context within the tweet, many didn't.
SO, DID OPPY ACTUALLY SAY, "MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT'S GETTING DARK"?
As NPR's Scott Simon said, it's a "poetic translation."
My tweet is an interpretation of what two scientists from the Mars Exploration Rover Mission told me.
Deputy Project Scientist Abigail Fraeman spoke about what it was like when they realized the June dust storm was going to be particularly bad, and that Oppy's life was in danger. They told it to conserve energy.
"It's hard, because you know it's coming... but there's nothing you can do to stop it," Fraeman said.
"By Thursday, we knew that it was bad. And then by Friday, we knew it was really bad, but there was nothing we could do but watch. And then it was Sunday, we actually got a communication from the rover and we were shocked," she said. "It basically said we had no power left, and that was the last time we heard from it."
John Callas, the project manager, offered another poignant detail about the final communication with Oppy: "It also told us the skies were incredibly dark, to the point where no sunlight gets through. It's night time during the day."
"We were hopeful that the rover could ride it out. That the rover would hunker down, and then when the storm cleared, the rover would charge back up," he said. "That didn't happen. At least it didn't tell us that it happened. So, we don't know."
While not as catchy as seven words on a T-shirt, Oppy's final message back to headquarters is still impressive.
This rover was built over fifteen years ago, traveled over 283 million miles, and lasted a lot longer than scientists anticipated. And even when the end was near, it held its ground and sent back one last valuable message before disappearing into the martian dust storm.
Seeing such a clear example of excellence is inspiring.
And the fact that robot was super cute, doesn't hurt either.