Mars Opportunity Rover, Expected to Last Only 90 Days, Celebrates 12 Years

By Jonathan Zhou
Jonathan Zhou
Jonathan Zhou
Jonathan Zhou is a tech reporter who has written about drones, artificial intelligence, and space exploration.
January 25, 2016 Updated: January 26, 2016

This week, the Mars rover Opportunity celebrated its 12th anniversary on the red planet, having first landed there on Jan. 24, 2004. The rover is still functioning, and has an exploratory mission over the winter in “Marathon Valley” in the Endeavour crater.

When Opportunity first landed, the NASA team thought the harsh Martian environment would render it useless in a matter of months. But the golf cart-sized rover, powered by solar energy, is still collecting data today.

“Twelve years is a very long time to have this sort of a continuous presence,” Matt Golombek, Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) project scientist, told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. “For a science team to be this involved, on a daily basis, for this long on Mars, is pretty much unprecedented.”

And the rover has started to show its age. In March of last year, NASA reformatted the Opportunity’s flash memory after it experienced dozens of amnesia events and other memory-related malfunctions. But for the most part, the NASA team still sees the potential for more missions with the rover.

When the Opportunity first landed on Mars, it explored the Eagle Crater. Twelve years later, it’s still exploring craters, traveling along the western rim of the 14-mile-wide Endeavour crater since 2011, and is currently exploring an area that NASA scientists call “Marathon Valley.”

“Every day, you’re looking at images that no one has ever seen before,” John Callas, MER project manager, told the Tribune. “In that sense, it’s always new, it’s always fresh.”

Mars Rover Opportunity at Rock Abrasion Target ‘Potts’

The Opportunity also holds the title for the most distance traveled by an off-Earth rover. In 2014, it surpassed the previous record, held by the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 rover, after it accumulated 25 miles of driving.

Even though the Opportunity has been on Mars since 2004, it’s only spent seven winters on the red planet. Each Martian year lasts 1.9 Earth years and each Martian day is 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth.

This has created an uncomfortable situation for the scientists observing the rover, who had to shift their sleep cycles continuously to keep monitoring it.

“You’re essentially permanently jet lagged,” Callas told the Tribune.

Jonathan Zhou is a tech reporter who has written about drones, artificial intelligence, and space exploration.