Originally slated for a 90-day mission back in 2004, the Mars rover, Opportunity, continues to explore the planet well beyond its best before date. Today it doesn’t fully power up anymore because some of its solar panels have been damaged by Martian dust storms. One of its wheels is no longer working properly, occasionally jamming. Its one-meter (3 foot) robotic arm is a bit arthritic. And it’s down to a single processor and power supply. But having said that it continues to roll along having traveled more than 36 kilometers (22.3 miles) as of the writing of this posting.
Today it is continuing to explore the edge of 22 kilometer wide (14 mile) Endeavour Crater (see image showing Opportunity‘s travels below). It plans to winter there at a good Sun angle to allow it to continue to recharge its batteries. But before it stops it will travel another 2.2 kilometers (1.4 miles) to its winter destination, Solander Point on Endeavour’s rim. Opportunity should arrive at Solander Point sometime in August.
Over the ten Earth years and more than 3,300 Sols (Martian days) we have learned a lot from this robotic rover. Most recently it made an exciting discovery — that Mars at one time had water running through seams in rocks, and that the water had favorable pH levels conducive to living organisms. This discovery was made by Opportunity as it used its still functioning rock abrasion tool to expose clay minerals which it then studied with its microscopic camera and x-ray spectrometer. The rock that it examined has been named Esperance. It contains higher levels of aluminum and silica than other rocks the rover has examined in its over nine year sojourn on the planet’s surface.
Up until now the rocks Opportunity found would have formed in environments with highly acidic water not conducive to life. This was its second discovery of clay mineral deposits which could only be created through active water flow.
So happy anniversary to Opportunity, the Martian rover that continues to unfold the mysteries of Mars while exceeding the wildest expectations of NASA scientists. And watch NASA’s latest science news cast about Opportunity‘s ten years of travel on YouTube.