July 19, 2011

Opportunity Rover Hits 20-Mile Mark On Mars

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has driven over 20 miles in seven years, which is over 50 times the mission's original distance goal.

NASA said the rover completed a 407-foot drive on July 17 that took Opportunity past the 20-mile mark. 

The drive brought Opportunity to within a few drives of reaching the rim of Endeavour crater, which is the rover team's long-term destination since mid-2008.

The crater is about 14-miles in diameter, and its western rim exposes outcrops that record information older than any Opportunity has been able to examine so far.

The rover sits at about eight-tenths of a mile from Endeavour's rim.

"The numbers aren't really as important as the fact that driving so much farther than expected during this mission has put a series of exciting destinations within Opportunity's reach," Alfonso Herrera, a rover mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

The most recent drive included a hazard detection portion during which the rover stopped to check its surroundings for obstacles before moving on.

Herrera said, "Autonomous hazard detection has added a significant portion of the driving distance over the past few months. It lets us squeeze 10 to 15 percent more distance into each drive."

Opportunity drove the mile-stone backward to preserve the motor in the right-front wheel, according to NASA.

JPL's Bill Nelson, chief of the mission's engineering team, said in a press release: "Opportunity has an arthritic shoulder joint on her robotic arm and is a little lame in the right front wheel, but she is otherwise doing remarkably well after seven years on Mars -- more like 70 in 'rover years.' The elevated right front wheel current is a concern, but a combination of heating and backwards driving has kept it in check over the past 2,000-plus sols (Martian days)."

The rover has been on Mars for 2,658 Martian days.  Opportunity was originally planned to be a three-month mission on Mars, but the mission has lasted over 80 months longer than what was planned.

Opportunity's twin rover Spirit stopped communicating with Earth in March 2010.  Both rovers have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life.


Image Caption: NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity used its navigation camera to record this view in the eastward driving direction after completing a drive on July 17, 2011, that took the rover's total driving distance on Mars beyond 20 miles. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


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