How Far Do Mars Rovers Travel Before They Die?

How Far Do Mars Rovers Travel Before They Die?


There’s a robot about to complete a marathon
on Mars! The finishing line could be hiding some of the most exciting science yet. Hello! I’m Ian O’Neill, space producer
for Discovery News. I want to focus on an awesome little NASA robot that has become
an extraterrestrial off-roading champion. Already a Solar System distance record holder
— after beating the 1972 driving record held by the Soviet Lunokhod 2 moon rover last year
— NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity is about to reach its next big milestone. Since landing on Mars it has traversed over
26 miles of Martian terrain. When it reaches 26.219 miles, it will have roved the equivalent
distance of an Olympic marathon. Opportunity landed on Mars on January 26,
2004, and was designed to last only 3 months. But 11 years later, the rover is still soldiering
on. Although it’s having some age-related illnesses, it’s showing little sign of slowing
down. Sadly, its sister rover Spirit, which landed
on the other side of Mars in 2004, was lost in 2010 after becoming stuck in a sand trap. Although Opportunity continues to do amazing
science in the harsh alien environment, some of its instrumentation is failing. Most recently,
it has been afflicted with some serious memory problems. Opportunity’s computer was never designed
to be used for this long, so a section of the robot’s flash memory has become corrupt.
This causes all kinds of operational issues. Data keeps getting lost and unexpected reboots
have hindered its progress. But Opportunity’s mission team have now
switched the rover to a “no-flash” mode – This is where the day-to-day science data
is uplinked to NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellites. The data
is then sent to Earth without being saved to the flash memory before the rover powers
down each night. Over the coming weeks, NASA engineers hope
to send new software up to the rover’s computer in an effort to fix this memory issue. But
for now, Opportunity is doing what it does best — conquering Mars. Opportunity will likely cross the marathon
“finishing line” over the coming days at a location nicknamed “Marathon Valley.”
Orbital images of the region has revealed that Marathon Valley contains interesting
clay deposits that Opportunity will be tasked to study. At the entrance to the valley is
a small impact crater nicknamed “Spirit of Saint Louis Crater,” so Opportunity will
make a pit stop there before rolling on. The mission has studied clay deposits around
Endeavour Crater before, revealing that Mars was a lot wetter than it is now. But not only
that, these clay minerals would have formed in water with a neutral pH — in other words,
water we could drink. Both Opportunity and Mars’ newest resident
Curiosity have uncovered compelling evidence of extensive water that would have existed
on Mars millions of years ago. So these surface missions, along with the growing number of
orbiting Mars satellites, are trying to piece together Martian past habitability and why
the red planet turned from a wet world with all the components for life, to a now dusty
and frozen world that seems inhospitable for life as we know it. So as Opportunity rolls into its 12th year
on Mars, soon crossing the marathon finishing line, we’ll be cheering her on, hoping for
more awesome science from one very tough little robot. Is Opportunity your favorite Mars rover? Let
us know in the comments, and subscribe for more DNews every day!

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