The Difficulties of Operating a Rover on Mars for 10 Years

Want to get an engineer excited? Give them a challenge. And the Opportunity rover has provided plenty of challenges in the past 10 years on Mars. Fun challenges, though; amazing tests of wit and skill, doing repairs on a rover that is sometimes a hundred million kilometers away. But with the longevity of the rovers also comes some amazing science.

The Opportunity rover is celebrating ten years on Mars. While the rovers were designed for about 1 kilometer of odometry, Oppy has now traveled 38.7 kilometers (24 miles). At yesterday’s briefing, the rover scientists and engineers said Opportunity is still in very good health and still is scientifically productive.

In the recent “selfie” image below, you can see how the rover is covered with dust, almost perfectly camouflaged with its environment. That montage was taken a few weeks ago, but recently there have been some wind cleaning events that have dusted off the solar panels, improving the solar power from 47% to 60%, which is higher than it has been through the past two Martian winters. This means they can continue to drive and explore even more, perhaps even during the upcoming winter.

Dust covering the rovers’ solar panels was one of the reasons that the initial estimates of the rovers’ life was only for 90 days. The dust cleaning events have been an unexpected benefit that has allowed for the long missions for the MER rovers.

Beyond the scientific findings of potential habitability announced yesterday, John Callas, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers said both Spirit and Opportunity have given us a great intangible.

“Through these rovers our species has gone to work on Mars, and now a generation has grown up with these rovers and have been inspired by them,” Callas said. “Because of these rovers Earthlings have become Martians too, dual citizens, if you will. We now live in a larger world, a world than now extends beyond our own home planet these rovers have made Mars our neighborhood and our backyard, something truly remarkable.”

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