NASA’s Curiosity rover may be getting all the attention on Mars these days but the real overachiever is Opportunity — it’s been busy exploring, studying, and traveling across the planet’s surface for over 12 years now and still going strong!
Launched July 7, 2003, the rover is currently in its 4,270th sol — 4,180 past “warranty.” (Pretty impressive for a mission that was only planned to last 90 days!)
Opportunity (aka MER-B) is currently studying the surface of Mars along the western rim of the large 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater in an area called “Marathon Valley,” thus named because when the rover came upon it it had successfully traversed a bit more than 26.2 miles across Mars since its landing on Jan. 25, 2004. Opportunity now holds the world record for off-world driving!
The winter solstice has just passed in Mars’ southern hemisphere where Opportunity is, meaning that the rover will slowly but steadily be receiving more direct sunlight on its solar panels as 2016 progresses. A year on Mars is almost two Earth years long (and Mars’ axial tilt is similar to Earth’s) so each season lasts twice as long. Still, Opportunity’s solar panels have managed to remain clear and so, positioned along north-facing slopes in Marathon, the rover has been able to keep busy despite the season.
“Opportunity has stayed very active this winter, in part because the solar arrays have been much cleaner than in the past few winters,” said JPL’s Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas.
This is Opportunity’s seventh winter on Mars.
During its prime mission and for more than 11 years of additional exploration across extended missions Opportunity has repeatedly found compelling evidence of ancient watery environments on Mars.
Opportunity’s sister rover Spirit fell silent after becoming stuck in loose surface material near a feature called Home Plate in 2009. Spirit ceased communication in March 2010 and was never heard from again.
As a “throwback” this was Opportunity’s very first Pancam mosaic from the surface of Mars, taken from the 65-foot (20-meter) Eagle Crater in which the rover landed:
Best wishes to Opportunity for many more years — both Earth and Martian — of science and exploration!
You can find the latest updates from the Opportunity mission here.