Never forget that we've got more than one robot on Mars. While Curiosity has been busy finding signs of an ancient nitrogen cycle on the Red Planet, Opportunity — which touched down in January 2004 — has just completed the first ever extraterrestrial marathon. NASA confirmed this week that the six-wheeled robot has now traveled more than 26.219 miles in 11 years and two months. "This is the first time any human enterprise has exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of another world," said Opportunity's project manager John Callas. "A first time happens only once."
Opportunity has already wildly exceeded expectations. The rover was originally scheduled to operate for only 90 Martian days (a Martian day or sol is around 40 minutes longer than an Earth day). And apart from exceeding its run-time by more than 10 years, it's also made numerous scientific discoveries, including examining the first meteorite found on another planet and finding evidence that water once flowed across Mars.
A map showing the Opportunity rover's entire journey. (NASA/JPL)
However, it's not certain how much longer Opportunity can keep on going. Its twin rover, Spirit, stopped moving in 2010 and became (rather euphemistically) a "static research station." And Opportunity is suffering from the gradual decay that affects all computer systems. Its flash memory has worn out out after numerous writes and re-writes, and as a consequence the rover is suffering from bouts of amnesia.
"[Opportunity] has been amazingly healthy considering how much we’ve used it — we thought the mobility system would have worn out a long ago but it’s in great health," said Callas in December last year. "But anything could fail at any moment... It’s like you have an aging parent, that is otherwise in good health — maybe they go for a little jog every day, play tennis each day — but you never know, they could have a massive stroke right in the middle of the night. So we’re always cautious that something could happen."