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Ninety days? Psh! NASA's Opportunity Rover Sets Out on Its Tenth Year on Mars

Opportunity’s rover team compiled this image timed with the ninth anniversary of the rover’s Mars. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL

Opportunity’s rover team compiled this image timed with the ninth anniversary of the rover’s Mars mission. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL

NASA’s detractors might want to stick their fingers in their ears and hum loudly when confronted with the recent milestone reached by one of the space agency’s rovers—Opportunity. Given a life expectancy of just 90 days, the rover is now set to embark on its tenth year on the surface of the Red Planet. 

It was hoped that during three months it could travel about 2,000 feet. Since that time Opportunity has traversed roughly 22 miles on Mars exploring the Meridiani Planum region.

Opportunity followed Mars Exploration Rover Spirit’s landing on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004 (Spirit arrived on Mars in January 4, 2004). Each of the MER duo landed on Mars by bouncing down via airbags, a technique pioneered by the Sojourner rover, which touched down on Mars in 1997.

Opportunity is considered the “lucky twin” of the two rovers, as it touched down in what was dubbed Eagle Crater and almost immediately discovered evidence that water had once flowed on the surface of Mars.

With its first assignments long since accomplished, Opportunity has seen its mission extended again and again. The rover has lasted 36 times longer on the surface than was planned.

Opportunity is operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) located in Pasadena, Calif. Controllers have guided the rover to ever-larger craters that have provided researchers with insights to the history of Mars. Her and her sister, Spirit, who ceased operating in 2010, have served to rewrite what is known about the Red Planet and helped guide the next generation of rovers.

In August 2012, the rover Curiosity touched down at Mars Gale Crater on a mission to seek out clues that Mars once contained the necessary ingredients to support life. Curiosity, due to her size (the rover weighs about a ton), required a high-tech jet pack called a Sky-Crane to deposit her safely on the surface. If Curiosity accomplishes its prime mission, it will only encompass one-fifth the length of time that Opportunity has spent on Mars. Curiosity’s prime mission is only planned to last two years.

AmericaSpace readers: We would like to apologize for two inaccurate dates within the initial posting of this article. As much as we would like to say “sorry” we also would like to say “thank you” to all our great readers who caught these mistakes and let us know about them.

17 comments to Ninety days? Psh! NASA’s Opportunity Rover Sets Out on Its Tenth Year on Mars

  • NOP7000

    “Opportunity followed Mars Exploration Rover Spirit’s landing on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004 (Spirit arrived on Mars in June of 2003).”

    Spirit launched on June 10, 2003 and landed on Mars January 4, 2004, about 3 weeks ahead of Opportunity.

  • NOP7000

    “Each of the MER duo landed on Mars by bouncing down via airbags, a technique pioneered by the Sojourner rover, which touched down on Mars in 1996.”

    Mars Pathfinder launched on December 4, 1996 and landed on Mars July 4, 1997.

    • Thanks NOP7000,
      As I stated earlier, one should never try to write a detail-oriented piece while fighting off the flu & medicine head.
      Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

  • James Rice

    Hi Jason,
    I am a Co-Investigator and Science Team Member on the Mars Exploration Rover Missions and have some corrections/edits to your article:
    1. Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars July 4, 1997

    2. Spirit landed January 3, 2004 Pacific Standard Time which was 3 weeks before Opportunity (January 24, 2004).

    3. Current Odometry on Opportunity as of January 24, 2013 is 35.455 km (22.03 miles)

    • Hi James,
      Thanks for the corrections, however, in terms of Opportunity’s odometer and a news piece? 22 miles is acceptable (the general public isn’t too concerned with .03 miles). Although it’s no excuse, one shouldn’t conduct research when suffering from the flu, I wrote this piece when I was under the weather & apologize for the errors.
      Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

  • Congratulations to Opportunity! Hope it continues for another 10 years. Maybe Curiosity can last as long and give us a steady stream of exciting discoveries.

  • Tracy

    I am confused…The MER rovers were designed to last 3 Months but they are going on 10 years. Is this the result of

    1. Over engineering as in could the cost of the rovers been substantially less?
    2. Is the climate significantly less extreme than the design required?
    3. Is this cause for concern in that the engineers do not realize just how good their designs, fabrications and builds are?
    4. Is it possible to over design software as well?

    • So what if it’s all of the above? The designers, engineers and scientists are to be congratulated for their outstanding work. Perhaps you were a bit tongue-in-cheek?

      • Tracy

        Tom,
        I was serious….I see a “disconnect” between how smart the “best and brightest are” and how dumb they think they are…..

    • Tracy,
      What you deem as “over” design & “over” engineering – smart engineers & planners deem as being prepared for the harsh environment of space. When one slaps things together & hopes for the best you wind up with “better, faster, cheaper.”
      Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

      • Tracy

        And here I thought the failure of Better, Faster, Cheaper was Corruption of big areospace not wanting to compete in fixed price market….

  • Jason: Spot on! “Better, faster, cheaper” – got us nowhere! Nothing like the old fashion, hard work and dedication to get the best possible results.

    • Tracy

      Curious did you see the Update from Plantary Resources….They are designing, building and fabricating their own robotic systems in house to mine astrioids…So it would appear that Better, Faster and Cheaper is only for the private sector?

      • Tracy,
        Planetary Resources has announced plans for asteroid mining – but having said that commercial companies have released plans for any number of things. The best way to view these companies is: “Your plans matter when achieved.” As harsh as that may seem, AmericaSpace can release plans to mine Pluto – so lets face it talk is cheap.

        BTW – what exactly does this have to do with Opportunity being the success you appear to wish it weren’t?
        Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

  • Tom,
    While I agree hard work & preparing for the worst is the way to go – I don’t think being fixated on any one way is the way to go. This manner of thought doesn’t allow for growth. New ideas should be tried.
    Sincerely and with thanks, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

  • Tracy

    So then is the Robotic lander program really just R&D for a manned program then and the “Over Engineering” is really by plan so that those systems are really designed for longer durations that will be used in future Manned missions to the planet? That would make sense…..Otherwise it scares me to think of such robust hardware being combined with Strong AI and not truely knowing the capability of this technology…

  • Jason: You are correct and I appreciate your insight.