And the winner is….Mars rover Opportunity! The gritty little rover has been rolling along on the surface of Mars for over 11 years, and has just crossed an important milestone. On March 24, 2015, it completed the first marathon-distance drive on another world.
Mission scientist are jubilant, but focussed on the big picture. Steve Squyres, Opportunity principal investigator at Cornell University, says, “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. Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool.”
You can see a rover’s-eye view of parts of the journey here. Apart from running the first off-world marathon, Opportunity has chalked up some pretty impressive achievements. These include discovering locations on the rim of the Enterprise crater that may have been home to microbial life in earlier times. During the initial stages of the mission in 2004, the rover found evidence of running surface water, also in the planet’s past.
Just last week, project scientists successfully reformatted Opportunity’s memory, after closing off a corrupted section. This allows project scientists to begin using the memory for storage again, since the rover collects more information than can be transmitted daily. According to John Callas, Project Manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, “Opportunity can work productively without use of flash memory, as we have shown for the past three months, but with flash we have more flexibility for operations. The rover can collect more data than can be returned to Earth on any one day. The flash memory allows data from intensive science activities to be returned over several days.”
The overall health of the 11-year old mobile geological laboratory is remarkably good, specially considering that the mission was originally intended to last only three months. The rovers, Opportunity, Spirit (now silent) and Curiosity are part of NASA’s Mars Program, which aims to understand the past and present environment of Mars with a view to future human exploration.