Unstoppable Rover: After 10 years Opportunity is still making discoveries

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75026 full

Ninety days.

That's about how long scientists planned for the Opportunity rover to carry out its primary mission of exploring Mars.

Ten years later, the rover is still going.

The 10-year-old rover's right front wheel is no longer able to steer, and its arm is partially stuck. But JPL director Charles Elachi says the machine is doing impressively well for something expected to last only a few months.

"It outlived its warranty," he said at a recent celebration for the machine. "I wonder how many of you have cars which have survived more than 10 years without ever taking them to the shop."

The rover recently made a startling discovery when its cameras detected a rock in an area where previously no such rock was present.

"It appeared," said lead project scientist Steve Squyres at a recent JPL presentation. "It just plain appeared at that spot and we haven't driven over that spot."

He says the rover's cameras previously photographed the area and no rock was present. When they looked again a few days later there was what Squyres describes as a "jelly donut" looking stone.

He theorizes it could have been kicked over by the rover's wheels or perhaps spit out after a meteor struck nearby. His team will analyze the rock for clues.

It's just the latest example of the Opportunity rover surprising scientists at NASA.

10 years of accomplishments

Opportunity landed on Mars three weeks after its twin rover Spirit, in an area named Eagle Crater.

Project scientist Matt Golombek describes that event as a "hole in one," because right away the rover was able to examine an interesting outcropping of rocks.

"Outcrops to geologists are like currency, that's what we want to see," Golombek said.

By examining the composition of those rocks, scientists learned a lot about Mars' past and eventually determined that the red planet once was covered in water, something previously only suspected.

"After we had investigated those rocks, ... it was incontrovertible," he said.

Since then the rover has explored many more regions. It even took a three year long drive to arrive at Endeavour Crater, where it continues to explore to this day.

Trials and tribulations

Of course, driving a rover on an alien planet is no easy feat, and Opportunity certainly had its share of setbacks.

In April of 2005 the rover became stuck in a Martian sand dune, Golombek said.

Scientists spent months figuring out the right way to drive to safety, even buying pool filter sand in order to run experiments simulating the Martian environment here on Earth. By June of that year the rover was on safe ground again.

Scientists also worried that over time the rover's solar panels would be covered in so much dust it would not be able to recharge itself.

This indeed started happening, says Golombek. But, surprisingly, Martian dust storms cleared the dirt from the panels.

"Mars blew the dust off," he laughed. "It's been blowing the dust off regularly ever since, and that's why we keep going."

JPL's team can't predict how long Opportunity will keep roving, but project scientist Matt Golombek says for now. "Everyday is a treasure on Mars and we all approach it that way."

KPCC will be hosting an event looking at the 10 year history of the Spirit and Opportunity rover on Mars on Jan. 23.

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