On Sunday, January 24, NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity reached 12 Earth years on the surface of Mars, having landed on the same day in 2004.
It was budgeted to last 90 days, with a lifespan of a few months, before it was thought its solar panel would be covered in dust and stop working. But thanks to a number of factors, including wind on Mars, the tenacious rover has been able to endure the harsh Martian environment for much, much longer.
The rover has begun to show its age, becoming more difficult to maneuver and having memory storage problems. Also, two of its scientific instruments have now stopped functioning completely. Problems aside, though, Opportunity continues to produce an abundance of science.
Opportunity is currently exploring a region rich in clay minerals that would have formed in wet conditions. The area is called Marathon Valley, since it’s 42 kilometers (26 miles) – the Olympic marathon distance – from Opportunity's landing site in Eagle Crater.
"With healthy power levels, we are looking forward to completing the work in Marathon Valley this year and continuing onward with Opportunity," Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas said in a statement.
The rover is currently removing surface crust from rocks in the valley, and the texture and composition are being examined with the use of its robotic arm.
The Martian winter started in January, so the solar energy that the rover is currently receiving is significantly lower than usual. The team positioned the rover in a more favorable sun-facing orientation, which has increased the amount of power the solar panels are generating, allowing for power-consuming operations like drilling and rock-grinding.
"Opportunity has stayed very active this winter, in part because the solar arrays have been much cleaner than in the past few winters,” said Callas.
The rover is fully funded until the end of 2016, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is currently working on the next extension proposal. In the last review, Opportunity received the highest rating of any ongoing Mars mission.