If slow and steady wins the race, then NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity takes first place. In March, more than 11 years after it landed on the Red Planet, the scrappy little robot completed 26.2 miles, or the length of a full marathon – and now you can watch its entire epic journey in this eight-minute video.
The images in the video were taken with the rover's hazard-avoidance cameras between January 2004 and April 2015, and the crunchy-gravel soundtrack comes from vibration measurements from the robot's accelerometer, to give a sense of how rough the going could get.
When Opportunity and its twin rover Spirit landed in January 2004, they were scheduled for a 90-day run. But the hardy six-wheeled robots kept up exploring for years, enduring fierce dust storms and treacherous terrain. Spirit succumbed to a sand trap in 2009; NASA sent its final commands to the rover in 2011. But Opportunity is still going strong, outlasting its original mission roughly 45 times over.
During its extensive career on Mars, it has discovered plenty of signs of past water on the Red Planet, as well as evidence for potentially life-friendly chemistry (which NASA's drill-toting Curiosity rover later found in abundance).
The aging rover has not come through its ordeals unscathed: it has a “gimpy shoulder” and a damaged wheel, and it's suffering some memory issues. Currently, the solar-powered robot is operating without using its flash memory, which continued to suffer glitches even after a clever "hack" to fix it. That means that the rover must send the data it gathers back to Earth each day, or it gets lost for good. Luckily, that's not a dealbreaker for the aging rover, officials said – it just requires some adjustment.
"Flash memory is a convenience but not a necessity for the rover. It's like a refrigerator that way. Without it, you couldn't save any leftovers,” John Callas, Opportunity’s project manager, said in a statement. “Any food you prepare that day you would have to either eat or throw out. Without using flash memory, Opportunity needs to send home the high-priority data the same day it collects it, and lose any lower-priority data that can't fit into the transmission."
None of these setbacks will keep the rover from trekking onward across the rugged terrain. This month, after examining a band of reddish rock at a spot called the “Spirit of St. Louis,” the rover’s drivers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge plan to send it into the appropriately named Marathon Valley, a dent in the rim of Endeavour crater that stretches roughly the length of three football fields.
Here, with its solar panels at the right angle to capture as much sunlight as it can, Opportunity will be able to safely nestle for the winter while continuing to work, studying some interesting, clay-bearing outcrops.
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