Spaceflight Insider

Opportunity goes the distance

Opportunity currently holds the long-distance driving record for most miles off-planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Our the past forty years, humans have landed multiple spacecrafts on the Moon and Mars in the name of science and exploration. These vehicles, more commonly referred to as rovers, spend their “lives” collecting and analyzing data to learn more about the world they landed on. Back in 2004, NASA landed a set of twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on the red planet. Recently, Opportunity claimed the off-world long-distance driving record — racking up a total of 25 miles (40 kilometers) of driving. The previous record was held by the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 rover.

Graphic indicating the driving distances of several rovers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Graphic indicating the driving distances of several rovers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Opportunity has driven farther than any other wheeled vehicle on another world,” said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance. But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”

On July 27, Opportunity completed a drive of 157 feet (48 meters), putting Opportunity’s total mileage to 25.01 miles (40.25 kilometers). In July, the rover drove southward along the Endeavor Crater’s western rim. Before arriving at the crater in 2011, Opportunity had driven in excess of 20 miles (32 kilometers). Since arriving at the crater, the rover has been busy analyzing the rim, taking clay samples and even determining the clay contains sulfate-bearing minerals. The crater samples indicate evidence of ancient environments containing less acidic water than the samples collected at Opportunity’s landing site.

The next significant investigation site is “Marathon Valley” and observations from the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) indicate multiple clay minerals are exposed close together in this valley. With its location surrounded by steep slopes, the relationships between the different mineral layers might be more evident. If Opportunity can reach this valley, it will have driven the equivalent of a marathon or 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers).

On January 15, 1973, the Russian Lunokhod 2 rover drove approximately 24.2 miles (39 kilometers) in under five months. Recent calculations confirmed Lunokhod 2’s total mileage. The calculations were derived NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) images showing the actual rover tracks.

A collaboration involving Irina Karachevtseva at Moscow State University of Geodesy and Cartography’s Extraterrestrial Laboratory in Russia, Brad Jolliff of Washington University in St. Louis, Tim Parker of JPL, and others, verified the map-based methods for measuring distances for both Lunokhod-2 and Opportunity.

“The Lunokhod missions still stand as two signature accomplishments of what I think of as the first golden age of planetary exploration, the 1960s and ’70s,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and principal investigator for NASA’s twin Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit. “We’re in a second golden age now, and what we’ve tried to do on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity has been very much inspired by the accomplishments of the Lunokhod team on the moon so many years ago. It has been a real honor to follow in their historical wheel tracks.”

Earlier this year, as Opportunity closed in on Lunokhod 2’s mileage record, the rover team decided to name a crater on the Endeavor Crater’s outer rim in honor of the Russian rover.

Opportunity's view of the Lunokhod 2 crater. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity’s view of the Lunokhod 2 crater. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mars Exploration Rover Project is one element of NASA’s ongoing and future Mars missions preparing for a human mission to the planet in the 2030s. JPL manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages LRO for the Science Mission Directorate.


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