NASA’s Rover Opportunity has now been operating on the surface of Mars for a decade – long past its originally planned 90 day mission.
“A piece of equipment that has not been serviced by human hands in over ten years is still working. I don’t think your car works that good,” said Brenda Franklin, a flight operations manager for the Rover science team in a YouTube video commemorating the Rover’s decade-long performance.
The rover ‘bounced down’ on the surface of the red planet on January 25, 2004, using airbags to cushion its impact on the surface after being slowed by a Connecticut-made parachute. Opportunity achieved an intergalactic “hole in one” as it rolled into a small impact crater with exposed bedrock that helped scientists quickly confirm that Mars once had water on its surface. Opportunity has now traveled more than 24 miles from its original landing site.
Opportunity and its now deceased twin Spirit landed on opposite sides of the planet about two weeks apart. The rovers are powered by solar panels that charge on-board lithium-ion batteries made by Lithion, which was at the time a Connecticut company. Mission planners thought that martian dust would reduce the solar panel performance to the point that the battery could no longer get sufficient power to keep the rover’s electronics warm. Winds on the surface, however, have frequently blown the collected dust off the rover which resulted in better power collection.
Mission planners lost contact with Spirit in 2010 after it became stuck in a sand bank, unable to position itself towards the sun when the martian winter approached. Typically mission planners place the rovers in a hibernating position facing the sun to survive the brutally cold conditions.
NASA says that the health of Opportunity remains good despite its age and anticipates the rover will continue operating for quite some time.