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.
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