Obviously getting into the Olympic mood and feeling the pressure of the impending landing of the souped-up NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity,” the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team made announcement on Wednesday: their tenacious rover Opportunity has rolled a marathon across Mars!
Actually, it hasn’t. Yet.
As the JPL press release admits: “As of July 2012, Opportunity has traveled almost 22 miles — only 4.2 miles short of a full marathon.” Whether it’s a full marathon or not, that’s pure semantics. 22 miles is 22 miles.* In solar powered rover distances, that looks more like trekking to the South Pole or climbing Everest. To Opportunity, it must seem like she’s participating in the Gumball Rally!
But even more impressive is that Opportunity was only meant to roll only 600 meters when it landed on the Red Planet in 2004. In actuality, Opportunity’s odometer is reading a distance sixty times its planned drive. Its prime mission was to last only three months, it’s now in its eighth year. Even sister rover, Spirit, lasted way beyond its designed three-month planned lifetime, remaining operational for over six years.
Needless to say, as you look outside at your gas-guzzling automobile, 22 miles in eight years may sound like some crappy driving, but when sending commands from Earth — and the nearest rover driver is at least 35 million miles away — it pays to be careful. Typically, the rover is only commanded to drive 50-100 meters per day. It’s quality of science, not quantity on the odometer, that NASA is achieving with Opportunity.
And, quite frankly, the science has been breathtaking. Not only did the rover complete an epic drive to Endeavour crater in 2011 — overcoming technical problems and enduring many dust storms — along the way she found indisputable evidence for past water on the Martian surface, a potential indicator for the planet’s suitability for ancient life. And she’s returned over 100,000 photographs from Mars.
But how does this compare to other rovers in history? You may be surprised to hear that Opportunity doesn’t (yet) hold the record for extraterrestrial off-roading. That honor is still held by the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover that operated on the moon for four months, covering 23 miles before conking out.
Whether Opportunity beats Lunokhod 2′s record and completes her marathon remains to be seen, but when Curiosity lands in Gale Crater on Aug. 5/6, that nuclear-powered behemoth has some big solar paneled shoes to fill — Opportunity will reign as Queen Robot of Mars for a while longer.
*Although Opportunity still has a few more miles to go to complete the Martian Marathon, here are some random pieces of Opportunity distance trivia:
…almost nine laps of the Daytona Motor Speedway NASCAR track (one lap = 2.5 miles)
…176 furlongs. Which is nearly five-times the distance a horse will run during the British Grand National.
…nearly 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).
…from my house to Hollywood (the scenic route — avoiding the 101 freeway).
Image: A visualization of Opportunity on the Martian surface (NASA/JPL-Caltech)