In 2003 NASA launched two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which successfully landed on the surface of Mars and completed their base three-month missions in April 2004. Both rovers remained operational, so scientists continued to use them to further explore the Martian surface. The Spirit Rover gained media attention last year as it “retired” to its final resting place on Mars, but Opportunity is still operating after more than seven years of exploring.
Maneuvering Opportunity around the Martian surface has not been an easy task, but engineers have utilized an autonomous hazard detection to assist with the process. During the autonomous hazard detection process, the rover stops at specified intervals to scan its path for obstacles before continuing. It is important that the rover does not run into an obstacle for obvious damage concerns, but it is as equally important to avoid terrain that could cause potential “hang-ups” where the rover could get stuck. According to Alfonso Herrera, a rover mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California: “Autonomous hazard detection has added a significant portion of the driving distance over the past few months. It lets us squeeze 10 to 15 percent more distance into each drive.”
Originally Opportunity was designed for a total mission distance of one kilometer. Now the steadfast rover has logged over 30 kilometers, including its three-year 20-plus kilometer mission to the edge of the Endeavor crater. Tonight, Opportunity is expected to reach the rim of the Endeavor crater – a goal set by NASA in 2008. It is envisioned that Opportunity will provide an assessment of the geological makeup of the crater, identifying rocks and minerals and their layout with respect to one another. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists are hopeful that Opportunity will help them dig deeper into the makeup of Mars, and provide more insight into its history.