Opportunity Rover Has Been Photographing Mars for a Decade Now

Image: Opportunity Rover Has Been Photographing Mars for a Decade Now

Friday, 24 Jan 2014 12:18 PM

By Ken Mandel

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The Opportunity rover celebrated a decade on Mars on Friday, and the spacecraft is still snapping photos of the Red Planet.

Despite showing signs of age — one wheel and two instruments no longer work — the NASA rover has turned a planned months-long journey into a decade-long odyssey.

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"No one ever expected this — that after 10 years a Mars exploration rover would continue to operate and operate productively," Project Manager John Callas told Fox News on Thursday. 

Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004. The spacecraft's twin, Spirit, landed a few weeks earlier but stopped transmitting photos in 2010 after getting lodged in sand. But Opportunity, after years of finding sites far too acidic to sustain life, has located an area where the conditions were once favorable for living organisms.

"We have discovered another place on Mars that could have provided a habitat for life in a more ancient time," Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA's Mars exploration program, told reporters at a NASA press conference Thursday.

The solar-powered rover arrived on a sunny spot on the rim of Endeavour Crater in 2011 and is examining the rocks and dirt. Its sensors found traces of clay minerals that can only form in a water environment. This crater is the largest of five examined by Opportunity.

According to a new study published by the journal Science Friday, the rocks discovered by Opportunity are the oldest to date, at roughly 4 billion years old.

Last month, the probe Curiosity joined Opportunity and landed in Gale crater with the goal of finding an area on the planet that was habitable 4 billion years ago. It succeeded and has since been searching for traces of ancient life. 

Opportunity costs about $14 million a year to maintain, according to Fox News. NASA must decide whether to continue Opportunity's mission, as well as the fates of other extended missions, like Cassini on Saturn and Messenger on Mercury.

"From all the missions that we have, they're very productive and it would be a shame not to have enough to afford the continuation of those missions," Michael Meyer, of NASA headquarters, told Fox News.

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