NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity completed the first ever extra-planetary marathon distance on March 24. It took 11 years and two months to achieve a distance of 26.219mi or 42.195km. The now aged vehicle reached the celebrated mark during a lap of 153 feet (46.5 meters) near the rim of the Endeavour crater at Marathon Valley.
Opportunity landed on the Eagle Crater on January 2004 and accomplished this marathon in 3,968 Martian days or Sols. Available on the NASA site is the path that the vehicle crawled along since 2004. It passed through important Martian craters such as the Eagle, Endurance, Victoria and Endeavour. Last year, the robot became the champion in the longest distance traveled on an extraterrestrial surface by defeating the former Soviet Union’s moon rover called Lunokhod 2.
The NASA rover after landing successfully, completed its designated mission of detecting liquid water on the ground surface in the stipulated 3 months. But since Opportunity was still functional beyond its expected lifespan, it was allowed to continue collecting data, remarked John Callas, project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). More information was gathered from the Endeavour crater’s rim and clues were unraveled from earlier explorations about the red planet’s moist climate, less acidic and more microbe-favorable environment of the past.
Even though the Mars exploration rover is still not showing signs of stopping, the 11-year long marathon has resulted in some issues in its flash memory. This is no cause for concern as the robot has managed to work fine without it for almost 3 months. The other Mars Exploration Rover Projects are NASA’s newer Curiosity rover and three active orbiters dedicated to the red planet. Simultaneously, NASA’s manned-spaceflight to Mars is also underway.
Opportunity’s principal investigator Steve Squyres, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York adds that the even though the mission was not about setting records but for scientific research, running an extra-planetary marathon completion is a great achievement. The JPL rover team is dedicating a marathon race at their lab in Pasadena, California to celebrate this landmark.