Well it’s official: after over a decade of roving on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover has surpassed the off-world driving record previously and proudly held by the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover since 1973*! As of July 27, 2014, the tenacious solar-powered Opportunity racked 25.01 miles (40.25 kilometers) on its odometer as it traveled along the southern rim of Endeavour crater.
Not too shabby for a robot that was only originally intended to operate for 3 months!
“Opportunity has driven farther than any other wheeled vehicle on another world,” said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance. But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”
Over the past decade, Opportunity has made countless discoveries about the surface and geologic history of Mars — not to mention finding a couple of very impressive metallic meteorites. It’s even gone farther than the Apollo astronauts drove in the LRVs!
Even though its sister rover Spirit is no longer functioning, Opportunity is still going strong. In fact, if Opportunity can go another couple of kilometers it will have driven the equivalent of a marathon! Scientists have dubbed the next mission target for that point “Marathon Valley,” a site with exposed clays and ledges that may reveal stratified layers.
To commemorate the achievement of its Soviet lunar predecessor, a crater along Opportunity’s current route has been named “Lunokhod 2.”
“The Lunokhod missions still stand as two signature accomplishments of what I think of as the first golden age of planetary exploration, the 1960s and ’70s,” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for Opportunity and Spirit. “We’re in a second golden age now, and what we’ve tried to do on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity has been very much inspired by the accomplishments of the Lunokhod team on the moon so many years ago. It has been a real honor to follow in their historical wheel tracks.”
*Once claimed to be 42 km, and then held at 37 km, the most recent measurements taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have since shown Lunokhod 2’s actual driving distance along its meandering path to be 39 km (+/– 100m). The rover stopped working in June 1973 after five months of travel, thought to be due to overheating after lunar regolith accidentally got into its radiator.