It’s common for NASA’s meticulous engineering to yield above average results. Most space missions are active much longer than the original mission parameters require. It’s not uncommon for probes and rovers to last years longer than expected, but the Opportunity rover is in a completely different league. This plucky little robot has just spent is 5,000th Martian day on the red planet, or just over 14 years on Earth. It was only supposed to last 90 Martian days.
Opportunity is one of only two operational rovers on Mars right now. The other is the much newer and more advanced Curiosity, which itself has long outlived its original mission lifetime. Opportunity launched in 2003 atop a Delta II rocket just a few weeks after the identical Spirit rover. NASA expected both Spirit and Opportunity would 90 Sol (a Martian day, which is only a little longer than an Earth day) because their solar panels would not provide enough power to get them through their first Martian winter.
Solar power is the most common source of power for space missions, but it’s less effective as you get farther from the sun. The long dark Martian winters are also twice as long as they are on Earth. Yet, both rovers managed to make it through several winters. However, NASA realized it could orient the rovers to point their solar panels northward to capture more sunlight than expected during the winter. This allowed the 90 Sol mission to stretch into multiple years.
Spirit eventually became stuck in sand in 2009 and was unable to tilt its solar panels toward the sun to recharge. Opportunity has avoided any such pitfalls (despite a sand-related scare in 2005), and has now survived its eighth Martian winter. Curiosity sidestepped this issue entirely with the use of a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), so it could conceivably last longer if its wheels don’t fall apart.
During its extended mission, the go-kart-sized rover has covered 28 miles (45 km) and contributed to some major discoveries about the planet. Opportunity discovered the first ever meteorite on Mars and provided some of the best early information on the presence of water on the planet. Currently, Opportunity is trundling along the edge of Endeavor Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars’ southern hemisphere. NASA will continue using Opportunity to conduct research on Mars until it stops working. Even if that happened tomorrow, Opportunity has already been an overwhelming success. It’s lasted about 55 times longer than expected on another planet.
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