Martian marathon: Opportunity keeps knocking on the planet’s surface

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When NASA’s Opportunity rover landed on Mars in 2004, it was supposed to be good for three months before the unforgiving Martian environment was expected to take its toll.

A decade later, Opportunity is still communicating with NASA’s mission control and moving freely across the planet’s dust- and rock-covered terrain. The solar-powered robot’s mission has stretched unexpectedly from “one-kilometer-and-done” to 40 kilometers — that’s 25.01 miles for the metrically challenged.

In going beyond the call of cosmic duty, Opportunity has broken the previous off-world driving record set by the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 rover on the moon in 1973. The lunar rover covered a little over 24 miles in five months before shutting down.

Opportunity will complete the equivalent of an Earthling’s marathon of 26.2 miles if it can keep going. Ironically enough, the rover is now wheeling toward Mars’ “Marathon Valley,” where it will continue to look for signs of ancient water and fossils of microbial life.

Like Lunokhod two generations ago, Opportunity has become the gold standard of long-distance rovers. It might be too much to expect Opportunity to be in business when humans finally land on Mars in 20 years, but that would be an amazing rendezvous.

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