Shortly after landing on the Martian surface on Jan. 24, 2004 Opportunity sent back the first photo of its surroundings, a crater 16 miles away from its intended landing zone. Ten years later, the rover continues to surprise scientists around the world.
The mission was originally expected to last three months. As Opportunity roamed the barren deserts of Mars, dust would build up on its solar panels until it no longer had enough power to operate. NASA scientists thought that the slight electromagnetic field created by the panels would cause the dust to cling to the surface.
They were never more happy to be wrong.
As it turned out, the dust was not as clingy as they had anticipated, and periodic windstorms cleared the solar panels of debris, extending the rover’s lifetime again and again. Opportunity has had some scares over the years, including being partially buried and weathering a dust storm that blocked out the sun for weeks. Thanks to some brilliant planning and a bit of luck, however, the rover survived, and continues to survive today.
As if to celebrate its own anniversary, Opportunity has made yet another amazing discovery. A recent rock sample taken by the rover was found to be far more ancient that anything previously analyzed. The data reveals a warmer, wetter environment, far more suited to microbial life than the picture painted by other, more acidic samples.
Guided by data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity is examining minerals believed to be over 4 billion years old. Although the orbiter didn’t arrive until long after Opportunity’s mission was due to have ended, the rover’s astounding longevity has enabled the two platforms to collaborate, providing an eye in the sky to help find new and interesting locations to explore.
Scientists expect Opportunity to continue operating for some time, although they’ve understandably given trying to predict exactly when the rover will finally shut down. At this point, we’re all just hoping that there are more windy days ahead.