NASA's long-lived Mars rover Opportunity is celebrating a major milestone: 9 years on Mars. It was back on January 24, 2004 (January 25 for people living in the Eastern Time Zone) that NASA landed the second of its twin Mars rovers on the Red Planet for a mission that a had a design life of 90 days. Now, a staggering 9 years and nearly 3,300 days later, the rover is still going strong.
Speaking on Opportunity's unimaginable longevity, John Callas, project manager for opportunity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said that “these are magnificently designed machines . . . we really have greatly expanded the exploration envelope by having a vehicle that can not only last so long but stay in very good health over that time, such that we can continue exploring."
Not bad for a rover that was only expected to last 3 months.
Launched for the Red Planet in 2003, a time which coincided with the closest Earth-Mars approach in thousands of years, Opportunity, along with its twin rover, Spirit, started their journey through space in the hopes of fulfilling a planetary scientist's dream of a large, long-lived, roving vehicle that was to serve as a mobile science platform. In the mission statement, Opportunity and Spirit were given a 90 day life estimate.
That was at the rovers' arrival in January, 2004.
Their initial mission to look for signs of water on Mars completed within the 90 day time frame, both rovers were still going strong. So, officially living on borrowed time, NASA scientists decided to try and get as much out of the rovers as possible before they too went the way of Pathfinder/Sojourner, Viking, and all the other Mars missions.
Needless to say, the rovers did not disappoint, with their findings completely reshaping our knowledge of the Red Planet.
Unfortunately for Spirit, things started to turn rocky on March 13, 2006 when one of the rover's front wheels became immobilized. Being a front wheel, mission control simply turned Spirit around and drive it backwards for 3 years, during which it continued its mission. However, while the stuck wheel was a minor inconvenience, things turned serious on May 1, 2009, when Spirit got stuck in Martian sand. After months of trying to extricate the rover, NASA declared that Spirit would serve as a stationary science lab in January, 2010. Unfortunately, the rover's solar panels were not orientated toward the Sun in the best possible angle, which meant that power would be a problem. Then, on March 22, 2010, all transmissions from the rover ceased as Martian winter arrived. The rover was finally declared dead the following year.
As for Opportunity, things could not be more different. Thanks to its location in a region closer to the Martian equator, Opportunity has been able to avoid the more severe polar winters that, in all probability, doomed its twin. To date, Opportunity has driven over 22 miles across Mars, and, according to NASA, is still going strong., inspecting clay deposits at Endeavour Crater. For the record, clay tends to form in water of a neutral PH, which is very friendly to life..
In the end, only time will tell how long the mission will last.
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