A portion of the view from atop Cape Tribulation by NASA’s Opportunity rover taken on her 11th anniversary on Mars on Sol 3911, Jan. 24, 2015. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Jan 31, 2015 Opportunity defies odds on 11th anniversary

Sen—Opportunity, the longest surviving off-world rover in human history continues to defy the odds on the 11th anniversary of her Red Planet touchdown, roving to a Martian mountaintop and beyond despite intermittent memory lapses while still producing world class science day in and day out.

Anyone betting against Opportunity is making a big mistake! “Opportunity has continued to amaze us all and defy the odds in its longevity,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC, told Sen exclusively.

And the best science days of the out of this world robot are likely yet to come. 

“Although showing its age, it still has ahead of it some fantastic science to be accomplished,” Green emphasized.

Significant deposits of phyllosilicate clay minerals that formed in streams of flowing neutral liquid water conducive to the potential formation of Martian microbes, sit less than 200 meters away from her current location atop a Martian mountain as of late January 2015. The clay minerals were discovered during previous remote sensing observations from Mars orbit by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), being used to command the rover to the most fruitful spots for science.

In early January 2015, the six wheeled rover ascended to the summit of Cape Tribulation—the highest mountain she will ever climb. Cape Tribulation lies along the eroded western rim of the humongous Endeavour Crater which spans 22 kilometers in diameter.

At the summit, Opportunity captured a spectacular panoramic view taking in a vast, never before seen vista across the Martian plains of Meridiani that will never be repeated again.

“Have you seen Mars lately?” Green noted. “It’s absolutely beautiful as we have seen it through the eyes of Opportunity for the last 11 years.”

You can see Opportunity’s magnificent view taken at the summit in the new photo mosaic created by the imaging team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.


Sol 3894: 11 Years after Martian touchdown, NASA’s Opportunity rover reached the summit of Cape Tribulation in January 2015 and took this spectacular mountaintop view looking into the vast expanse of Endeavour Crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 3894, Jan. 6, 2015 and colorized. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/ Ken Kremer/ kenkremer.com


Sol 3911: 11 Years on Mars! View from atop Cape Tribulation by NASA’s Opportunity rover taken on the day of her 11th anniversary exploring the Red Planet on Sol 3911, Jan. 24, 2015 and showing view ahead to next science destination at Marathon Valley. Navcam photo mosaic assembled from images taken on Sol 3911 and colorized. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/ kenkremer.com/ Marco Di Lorenzo

Also check out the map below showing the entire route the rover has traversed over 11 years to the anniversary date on Jan. 24, 2015, or Sol (Martian day) 3911.


11 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2015. Map shows entire path rover has driven during over a decade on Mars and over 3911 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location by Cape Tribulation summit at western rim of Endeavour Crater.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/ Ken Kremer/ kenkremer.com

NASA’s long-lived Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover (MEB-B) bounced to a touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004, three weeks after her twin sister Spirit and a month after the long-lost British Beagle 2 accomplished what we only recently learned was the first of three successful landings from Earth. Beagle landed intact on Christmas Day 2003 but never phoned home.

Each of the MER rovers was only ‘warrantied’ to endure for 90 Sols, or Martian days. As of Jan. 31, Opportunity has survived for 3919 sols, about 44 times beyond expectation. Put another way, Opportunity is 132 months into her 3 month mission.

No one, not even the rover science and engineering team members who conceived them, ever expected such endurance.

“Milestones like these on Mars always make me look forward rather than looking back, rovers Principal Investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., told me.

“We've still got a lot of exploring to do, but we're doing it with a vehicle that was designed for a 90-sol mission. That means that every sol is a gift at this point, and we have to push the rover and ourselves as hard as we can.”

And because of their longevity, Spirit and Opportunity discovered wide ranging geological evidence for a water wet environment on Mars billions of years ago in the form of ancient acidic lakes from hematite concretions, ancient hydrothermal springs at volcanic vents, and carbonates and clay minerals in rocks when the Red Planet was far warmer and wetter and thus indicative of a habitable zone.

"Because of the rovers' longevity, we essentially got four different landing sites for the price of two," says Squyres.

“Altogether … wow,” Rob Manning, MER Chief Engineer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the time of the landings, told Sen. “11 years on Mars yet she can still climb a hill. Not bad for an old robot.”

And Opportunity managed to climb atop Cape Tribulation despite having to operate in “crippled mode”—without using the flash memory storage system that stores the daily science data collected so as to avoid reset problems that plagued the robot in recent months. That also means the robot must transmit all science data every day or its lost forever.

“We managed to reach the summit of Cape Tribulation and take a spectacular panorama of Endeavour Crater all without using our flash memory,” Squyres said. “It’s the mode of operation that has always been called “crippled mode”, but I think we’ve shown that in that mode the rover is not crippled at all… it’s just a bit forgetful.”

Over the past year the 185 kilogram Opportunity also set the record for off-Earth driving when she zoomed past the 40 kilometer record previously held by the Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 moon rover, that stood since 1973.

“Opportunity has also exceeded the planetary rover distance record from all other missions including even the distance the Apollo astronauts traveled on the Moon!” Green said with obvious joy.

And all that mobility is critical to moving forward to the next science destination, now within striking distance at Marathon Valley—home to a mother lode of phyllosilicates.

Marathon Valley has abundant exposures of aluminum-rich clay minerals, said Prof. Ray Arvidson, the rover Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University.

The rover team has been using spectral observations collected earlier from orbit by MRO to direct Opportunity to the most scientifically productive targets of interest.

Arvidson directed the orbital investigations and analysis after gathering high resolution observations by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) aboard MRO.

“CRISM data were collected,” Arvidson said. “They show really interesting spectral features in the crater rim materials.”

Opportunity’s next science stop coming soon is “Spirit of St’ Louis Crater” at the entrance to Marathon Valley. Stay tuned!

For more on the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, read Sen's mission feature by Dr Amanda Doyle.


Sol 2678: Opportunity arrived at Endeavour Crater in August 2011 and snapped this mosaic of the interior showing the peak of Cape Tribulation in the distance which she reached in January 2015. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com


Sol 3684: Opportunity rover peers into Endeavour Crater from Pillinger Point mountain ridge named in honor of Colin Pillinger, the Principal Investigator for the British Beagle 2 lander built to search for life on Mars. Navcam mosaic assembled from images taken on June 5, 2014 (Sol 3684) and colorized. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/ Ken Kremer/ kenkremer.com


Sol 3871: NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover scans to the summit of Cape Tribulation less than 100 meters distant in mid-December 2014 with hi res pancam camera. Photo mosaic assembled from pancam images taken on Sol 3871, Dec. 13, 2014 and colorized. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com /Marco Di Lorenzo


Sol 3871: NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover scans to the summit of Cape Tribulation less than 100 meters distant in mid-December 2014 with navcam camera. Photo mosaic assembled from pancam images taken on Sol 3871, Dec. 13, 2014 and colorized. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/ kenkremer.com /Marco Di Lorenzo