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Summer Shorts: A Record 25 Miles on Mars

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s summer in the northern hemisphere of a small, damp, planet orbiting a middle-aged star in a spiral galaxy of matter enjoying a brief heyday before colliding with another galaxy in some 4 billion orbits of the same small, damp, planet. Time for some brief stories.

A recent traverse map of Opportunity's adventures so far (yellow line) (Credit: L. Crumpler, NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS)

In any other circumstances it would be hard to be impressed with a machine driving 25 miles over a period of about 10 years. But this is Mars, and this is a machine whose original mission called for a few months of operation and barely a half mile of exploration.

NASA’s Opportunity rover has now traversed just over 25 miles of martian terrain, following a convoluted and snaking route of extraordinary scientific discovery since it bounced to the surface in 2004. This puts it at pole position for the art of driving on other worlds, just ahead of the Soviet lunar robot Lunokhod-2, as shown in this handy infographic.

(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

One of the remarkable features of Opportunity’s accomplishment is that it’s done this all on solar power – surviving martian winters and nights, dust storms (some of which actually helped clean up the solar panels – see below), and tricky terrain even for a six-wheeled vehicle.

Before...and after. Opportunity's panels got cleaned up between January 2014 and March 2014. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

But records get broken, and although it has got a way to go, the expectation is that Curiosity – powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators – will eventually surpass the little rover that could…

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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