The Sciences

Mars Rover Sets Endurance Record: Photos From Opportunity's 6 Years On-Planet

80beatsBy Andrew MosemanMay 21, 2010 5:24 PM

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In January 2004, the Mars rover Opportunity, along with its brother Spirit, landed on the Red Planet. Eight months later we were wowed by their longevity, as both the machines had crawled long past their expected 90-day lifetimes. This year Spirit got intractably stuck in the sand and NASA announced that its days of wandering were finally at an end. But not Opportunity: The less mechanically troubled of the twins, Opportunity continues to rove the surface of Mars, and this week it passed the duration record for time on Mars set by NASA's Viking 1 lander when it died in 1982. As of today, Opportunity has been operating on Mars for six years and 118 days. By this March, Opportunity had driven more than 12 miles on the surface of Mars (on the far side of the planet from Spirit). But even a plucky rover needs breaks, especially now when the light level doesn't allow constant driving. This image shows Opportunity's tracks on a journey from one well-lit spot to the next, where it could recharge. However, the light level is increasing where the rover is located, so soon it should be able to take longer drives. Click through for some more of Opportunity's best images.

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2004: Eagle Crater Everyone remember where we parked. The Opportunity rover landed in Eagle Crater on January 25 2004. The area is rich in hematite, which is of particular interest to the project scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory because here on Earth, it forms in the presence of liquid water.

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2005: Heat Shield Rock This beaten-up and basketball-sized rock is the first meteorite we ever found on the surface of another planet. The name comes from the fact that Opportunity spotted the iron and nickel-rich rock near where its own heat shield came to rest after landing on Mars. At the time, Cornell's Steve Squyres said:

"I never thought we would get to use our instruments on a rock from someplace other than Mars. Think about where an iron meteorite comes from: a destroyed planet or planetesimal that was big enough to differentiate into a metallic core and a rocky mantle."

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2006: Victoria Crater This is less than half of the panoramic picture Opportunity took upon visiting Victoria Crater in 2006. The crater continues far off to the right, but we had to cut that off just to fit an image on your screen. You can take a peek at many more pancam images here

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2007: Dust Storms Spirit ultimately got its wheels stuck in loose terrain, but it was dust in the atmosphere that nearly did in Opportunity

in 2007. Thick dust can coat the rover's solar panels and reduce its ability to convert sunlight into electricity—causing it to drain its battery—and can also damage sensitive electronics. This time-lapse series of pictures shows how the skies darkened around Opportunity in 2007; by the time the picture on the right was taken, dust blocked 99 percent of sunlight. The prospects for both rovers looked grim, but skies cleared

by early August and both resumed their scientific operations.

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Now: Endeavor At present, Opportunity continues on a lonely road trip to a huge crater called Endeavor, a trek of about two years.

Endeavour is 22 kilometres [13.7 miles] in diameter, dwarfing Victoria crater, where Opportunity has already been, and which is 750 metres across [just less than half a mile]. The crater is interesting because of the clay minerals there, spotted from orbit. Clays form under wet conditions, rather than the dry harsh conditions that form sulfates – the other kind of rock that Opportunity has seen [Nature].

There's not much to see on the way to Endeavor, which is why this rock stuck out so much. A possible meteorite, the rock earned the nickname

"sore thumb" before NASA scientists gave it the more formal moniker "Marquette Island."

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Related Content: DISCOVER: Those Mars Rovers Keep on Going and Going...

80beats: Photo Gallery: The Best Views from Spirit's 6 Years of Mars Roving

80beats: Dis-Spirit-ed: NASA Concedes Defeat Over Stuck Mars Rover

80beats: Mars Rover Spirit Showing Signs of Age, Including Senior Moments

Images: NASA/JPL

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