Tenth Anniversary Of NASA Opportunity Launch Arrives Next Week
July 2, 2013

Tenth Anniversary Of NASA Opportunity Launch Arrives Next Week

[ Watch the Video: Opportunity's Improbable Anniversary ]

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

NASA has been celebrating several key anniversary dates recently. In April, the space agency celebrated the 30th anniversary of the first satellite in space. In May, it celebrated the 40th anniversary of the country's first space station: Skylab. And just last month, NASA celebrated the 30th anniversary of the first American woman in space: Sally Ride.

In the marking of a number of firsts, NASA will now be celebrating the anniversary of the first launch of a rover destined for the Red Planet. Opportunity, one of three rovers currently on Mars, blasted off from Cape Canaveral nearly 10 years ago on July 7, 2003.

When Opportunity launched all those years ago, many believed it was going to be a relatively short mission. First of all, landing on Mars was a very risky proposition. Earth's distant neighbor had a history of eating up any space visitors sent its way. And even if the rover had landed safely, it was only designed for a three-month mission in the hostile environment.

But as a testament to NASA engineers, Opportunity made a safe landing on the Martian landscape and even surpassed its three-month mission directive by a longshot, still plugging away more than nine years after touchdown.

In light of the 10-year anniversary of the launch, Opportunity will be celebrating by doing what it has always been doing: driving on. The rover is currently on a course to "Solander Point," where it will investigate a treasure trove of geological layers along the rim of Endurance Crater.

One of Opportunity's main mission directives was to hunt for signs that Mars was not always an arid, hostile, lifeless environment. In the search for ancient water, Opportunity has come a long way. It has found abundant evidence that liquid water was once present on the surface of Mars.

In its projects both in and around the edge of Endurance Crater, the rover has also found gypsum deposits that may have formed from groundwater seeping up through cracks in the Martian soil. Opportunity has also found signs of clay minerals in a rock named "Esperance."

Principal mission investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, said, "A lot of water moved through this rock… These results are some of the most important findings of our entire mission."

Now that Opportunity is on its way to Solander Point, mission leaders are hoping the area will provide nearly 10 times as much geological layering as has been found in previous regions, such as that found at Cape York. The team says Solander Point should be "like reading a Martian history book."

Another key reason for visiting Solander Point will be to allow the rover to tilt its solar panels toward the sun as it sits on the north-facing slopes. This should give Opportunity the right atmosphere it needs to ride out the approaching winter.

And if Opportunity survives yet another winter on the Red Planet, it will likely have the opportunity (pun intended) to break a record for longest distance traveled by a rover on a landscape outside Earth.

On May 15, 2013, Opportunity did break the previous US record for longest distance traveled by an American rover, reaching 22.220 miles. This beat out the 22.21 miles set by astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, who drove the Apollo 17 lunar rover for 22.21 miles in December, 1972.

The all-time extraterrestrial driving record is currently held by Lunokhod 2, a Soviet robotic vehicle that traveled nearly 26 miles across the Moon in 1973. Opportunity could beat that in the coming months. In fact, if the rover surpasses Lunokhod 2, it can look forward to 26.2 miles, which would be the equivalent of a Martian Marathon.

NASA's latest rover, Curiosity, which is nearing its first anniversary on the Red Planet, may be a strong contender in the mileage department. Jam-packed with the latest high-tech instruments and built to last, Curiosity could be plugging away on the Red Planet for years and may likely surpass Opportunity's distance traveled during its lifetime.