Opportunity clocks up a Mars record

A plucky robot buggy became the longest operating probe on the surface of Mars yesterday. NASA’s rover, called Opportunity, has been trundling around on the red planet for six years and 116 days. 

Artist’s impression of a rover on Mars

Amazingly when it landed in January 2004, its mission was scheduled to last just three months. Opportunity’s twin rover, Spirit, on the other side of Mars in Gusev Crater has been silent since March 22 after becoming trapped in sand.

But mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, California, hope it will reawaken from hibernation and resume contact after sunlight reboosts its batteries.

If that happens, Spirit will take the endurance record from Opportunity because it landed three weeks before its twin. The previous record was held by NASA’s Viking 1 lander which operated from 1976 to 1982.

Opportunity’s discoveries in a region of Mars called Meridiani Planum included mineral deposits called “blueberries” resembling a ring around a bathtub – the first clear evidence that there once was liquid water on Mars.

After two years exploring a crater called Victoria, Opportunity is currently on a slow eight-mile drive across rippled plains to another crater, Endeavour. Observations of Endeavour from orbit show the presence of clay minerals which may offer clues to life.

The rovers’ chief investigator, Steve Squyres, said: “Those minerals form under wet conditions more neutral than the wet, acidic environment that formed the sulphates we’ve found with Opportunity.

“The clay minerals at Endeavour speak to a time when the chemistry was much friendlier to life than the environments that formed the minerals Opportunity has seen so far. We want to get there to learn their context. Was there flowing water? Were there steam vents? Hot springs? We want to find out.”

NASA’s next rover, Curiosity, will launch launch between November 25 and December 18, 2011, NASA announced this week. Landing will follow between August 6 and 20, 2012.

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