Tenacious 10-year-old Opportunity still delivers exciting science from Mars

Early in the morning of January 25th, 2004, NASA's Opportunity rover landed on Mars, joining its twin, Spirit, on a 90-day mission to explore the landscape for clues about water — past and present — on the Martian surface. Now, 10 years after that landing, it's still going strong.

It's been an amazing 10 years for the Mars Exploration Rover team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Although a newer, larger robot rover landed on Mars in August 2012, Opportunity hasn't given up, and it's still returning important scientific discoveries.

"We're looking at the legacy of Opportunity's first decade this week, but there's more good stuff ahead," Steve Squyres, Opportunity's principal investigator, said in a JPL statement. "We are examining a rock right in front of the rover that is unlike anything we've seen before. Mars keeps surprising us, just like in the very first week of the mission."

[ Related: NASA's Opportunity Rover: A Decade of Mars Exploration (Op-Ed) ]

Just last year, the rover broke not only the U.S. off-world driving record set by the Apollo 17 astronauts back in 1972, but it also went on to take the all-time record just months later, when it surpassed the 37 kilometre mark set by Russia's Lunokhod 2 in 1973. Opportunity took a lot longer to accomplish the new record, of course. Apollo 17 was on the moon for only three days, and Lunokhod 2 took around four and a half months to drive its total distance. Still, even though it took so long, Opportunity had a lot more to overcome, as the JPL team talks about in this video:

Those accomplishments are noteworthy, but the real value of the mission is the science that it has returned to us. Opportunity started off giving us some incredible discoveries, like the so-called "Martian blueberries" — tiny spherules of hematite that looked like blueberries in the false-colour photographs the team released. It also provided us with the discovery of the first meteorite we ever found on another planet. More importantly, though, the rover (along with Spirit) provided the first confirmation of what we had been seeing from orbit — that Mars once had a much wetter environment in the past. The JPL team talks a bit about the progress of these discoveries in a second video:

Now, coming up on 10 years of continuous presence on Mars, new information that Opportunity gathered along the rim of Endeavour Crater has revealed a watery environment that was milder and older than what it had seen at previous locations.

"The more we explore Mars, the more interesting it becomes. These latest findings present yet another kind of gift that just happens to coincide with Opportunity's 10th anniversary on Mars," Michael Meyer, who is the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said in a JPL statement. "We're finding more places where Mars reveals a warmer and wetter planet in its history. This gives us greater incentive to continue seeking evidence of past life on Mars."

[ More Geekquinox: Dwarf planet Ceres may have more fresh water than Earth ]

Having persevered for over 40 times longer than it was originally designed to operate, Opportunity is definitely showing its age, but it's doing remarkably well. As a Popular Mechanics article from last June pointed out, Opportunity doesn't have the redundant features that a larger rover like Curiosity has. It was intentionally kept as light as possible to have the best chance of surviving its landing, so with no backups, "the robot has always been just a step away from crisis."

The JPL team keeps finding workarounds for any problems that come up, though, and the tenacious little rover keeps on delivering. Who knows, maybe when we finally put boots on Mars, Opportunity will trundle up to greet us!

(Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

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