After more than a decade roaming the Red Planet, NASA’s Opportunity rover has completed the first marathon on Mars.
NASA’s longest-running Mars rover, Opportunity, passed the marathon milestone on Tuesday, March 24, having traveled a total distance of 26.221 miles. A marathon is 26.219 miles long. Opportunity completed its marathon with a finish time of 11 years, and two months.
“This is the first time any human enterprise has exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of another world,” John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “A first time happens only once.”
NASA’s Opportunity rover became the off-Earth long-distance driving champion late last year when it surpassed the distance traveled by the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 rover on the surface of the moon. Opportunity mission team members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory plan to hold a marathon relay race to commemorate Opportunity’s achievement.
The rover achieved the milestone during a 153-foot drive that took it close to a science destination, dubbed “Marathon Valley,” on the western rim of the Endeavour Crater. Marathon Valley was selected as a science destination because observations from orbit have shown signs of clay mineral deposits.
The rover is currently investigating a small crater called “Spirit of St. Louis” located just west of Marathon Valley. Opportunity has been investigating the Endeavour Crater since arriving there in 2011.
“This mission isn’t about setting distance records, of course; it’s about making scientific discoveries on Mars and inspiring future explorers to achieve even more,” Opportunity principal investigator Steve Squyres said in a statement. “Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool.”
During Opportunity’s time on Mars it has returned a wealth of scientific data. The rover studied the first meteorites discovered on another planet, and photographed the movement of both clouds and dust devils on Mars. Opportunity also uncovered evidence that water once flowed on Mars, and that in the past Mars had an environment that was hospitable to life.
Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, were originally planned to operate on the surface of Mars for only 90 days. The rovers were never designed to survive a Martian winter. However, thanks to engineering and a little luck, the rovers vastly exceeded their intended lifespan. Spirit traveled 4.8 miles on the Red Planet until late 2009 when the rover became irrecoverably stuck in soft soil. Spirit continued operating on Mars until its last communication was sent on March 22, 2010.
While Spirit didn’t last as long, Opportunity has not been without signs of aging. The rover has an arthritic arm and has been suffering from “amnesia events” caused by the rover’s flash memory since late last year. Mission scientists successfully implemented a software fix that resolved the rover’s flash memory issues on Monday, March 20, just days before the rover passed the marathon milestone.
However, the greatest threat to Opportunity’s mission is not the harsh environment of Mars, it’s NASA’s budget. Funding for Opportunity’s mission was excluded from the President’s FY2016 budget request for the second year running. If money is not secured, the mission will be forced to end prematurely.
Write Congress today and tell them to save Opportunity. Take action here: http://www.penny4nasa.org/take-action/