Rover Opportunity Has Explored Mars For 12 Years, And Shows No Signs Of Stopping

The Mars rover, Opportunity, has had a lonely 12 years of pioneering exploration on the Red Planet. That’s even more amazing when you consider that it was only supposed to roam around for 90 days.

Now, it’s the longest NASA rover mission in history.

The rover-that-could has done something incredible: mapped a distant planet, covered almost 27 miles, and inspired countless kids to look to the stars and dream. One of those kids is now on the team that manages the Opportunity mission, the Pasadena Star News reported.

Another, lead spacecraft systems engineer Mike Seibert, 33, was in college when it launched. The mission was his first job out of college.

“They dangled a Mars rover in front of me, and I lost my mind very quickly. We’re all kind of emotionally invested in this mission.”

The Opportunity was the precursor to the Curiosity, and launched in 2003. It reached the planet on January 24, 2005; sibling Spirit landed weeks earlier. Both were supposed to look for signs for evidence that water once flowed on the Red Planet — which they found — over 90 days, Space.com reported.

NASA scientists watching back at home expected the landscape on Mars to wear down both rovers, as dust clouded up their solar arrays and sucked them dry of power. That wasn’t the case for either.

In 2009, the Spirit got stuck on the other side of Mars and couldn’t get free. It sent out its final communication in March, 2010, before running out of power. Six years later, Opportunity is still roaming around at a turtle’s pace and bringing back new images and discoveries all the time.

But after so many years alone on a distant, harsh planet, it’s showing its age. Of course, 12 years is a long time, said project scientist Matt Golombek.

“Twelve years is a very long time to have this sort of a continuous presence. For a science team to be this involved, on a daily basis, for this long on Mars, is pretty much unprecedented.”

Opportunity is the size of a golf cart, powered by solar panels, and ordered around by the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who execute commands by sending it code on a 20-minute delay. These days, its joints are achy and lock from time to time, a couple of its instruments don’t work, and it forgets things due to a faulty flash memory. Over the years, its memory has been updated to improve its movements and detection capabilities.

Every day, Opportunity travels another 600 meters over ground no human being has ever touched. For weeks, months, and sometimes years, its explores the same areas.

The rover landed on Eagle Crater on Mars’ Meridiani Planum, where it found geological evidence of a watery past. It also found signs of salty water that once flowed above the surface, looked into four craters to study salt flats, meteorites, and rock. It has explored Endurance Crater and looked at Mars’ geology, learning more and more about the its history. Today, the rover is exploring the rim of the Endeavor Crater and the crater’s feature, Marathon Valley, which should finish up this year.

“The science done by Opportunity and Spirit changed age-old views of Mars from an eternally desolate planet to one that may have been more Earth-like than previously believed,” wrote reporter Jason Henry.

The rover is funded through 2016, and the laboratory is working on another extension. The idea is for the Opportunity to explore until it gives out. So far, it’s lasted so long because it’s explored north-facing slopes in the winter so that the rover’s panels can collect solar energy in winter, ABC News reported.

[Photo by NASA/AP]