Opportunity Breaks NASA's 40-Year Roving Record

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After nine years of hard Mars roving, Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity has broken a 40-year-old extraterrestrial distance record.

On Thursday, the tenacious six-wheeled robot drove 80 meters (263 feet), nudging the total distance traveled since landing on the red planet in 2004 to 35.760 kilometers (22.220 miles). NASA’s previous distance record was held by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt when, in December 1972, they drove their Lunar Roving Vehicle 35.744 kilometers (22.210 miles) over the lunar surface.

PHOTOS: Alien Robots That Left Their Mark on Mars

“The record we established with a roving vehicle was made to be broken, and I’m excited and proud to be able to pass the torch to Opportunity,” Cernan told Jim Rice of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Opportunity team member in a conversation about the possibility of the rover exceeding the 40-year-old record a few days ago.

Opportunity may be NASA’s record-breaking hot-rod, but it has a few hundred meters left to go before it smashes the international extraterrestrial land-distance record.

In 1973, the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 remote-controlled moon rover roved 37 kilometers (23 miles) across the lunar surface and, so far, remains the undisputed champion of distance driving on an extraterrestrial surface.

But Opportunity is nearly there. Until recently, the NASA rover has been investigating the “Cape York” area of Endeavour Crater’s rim at Meridiani Planum. It is currently en route to a new location called “Solander Point,” 2.2 kilometers (1.4 miles) away, so we can expect the international roving record to be smashed within weeks.

PHOTOS: Ode to Mars Rover Spirit

Sadly, Opportunity’s sister rover Spirit wasn’t the distance-runner like her sibling. Spirit, although still a highly successful rover mission, conked out at a respectable 7.7 kilometers (4.8 miles) after becoming stuck in a sand trap in Gusev Crater. Spirit was declared lost in 2010. Both rovers have surpassed all expectations, considering their primary mission was only supposed to last three months.

How Far Has Opportunity Really Traveled?

In July 2012, shortly before the exciting landing of NASA’s newest and most sophisticated rover, Curiosity, inside Gale Crater, the MER team wanted to point out that their veteran rover had almost rolled a marathon. It still hasn’t quite reached the magic 26.2 mile mark (the official distance of a marathon), I thought it interesting to compare Opportunity’s odometer with some other, more familiar distances.

So, in honor of Opportunity holding the NASA distance record, here are those distances, updated:

Opportunity has traveled…

…almost nine laps of the Daytona Motor Speedway NASCAR track (one lap = 2.5 miles)

…178 furlongs. Which is nearly five-times the distance a horse will run during the British Grand National.

…four-times the distance an active basketball player will run during a game.

…from the coast of South England to the coast of France across the Strait of Dover (21 miles), plus a short detour for a croissant.

…from my house to Hollywood (the scenic route — avoiding the 101 freeway).

Image: On the 3,309th Martian day, or sol, of its mission on Mars (May 15, 2013) NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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