Opportunity rover completes Martian marathon

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Artist's impression of Opportunity, which has completed a marathon across the Martian surface (Image: NASA)

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Marathons may be an everyday occurrence for people on Earth, but are a little more noteworthy when you're a little robot on Mars. According to NASA, as of March 16, the Mars Opportunity rover has covered 26.219 mi (42.195 km) in the leisurely time of about 11 years and two months. or 3,968 Martian days. In 2014, Opportunity broke the record of any space rover when it passed the distance covered by the Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 moon rover, which was launched in 1973.

The Marathon milestone is marked by another event aimed at extending the life of the rover, which is operating 11 years beyond its original mission deadline. However, the robotic explorer has been showing signs of "amnesia" for the past three months due to a faulty flash memory bank that prevented it from storing data overnight, forcing NASA to download from Opportunity each Martian day before sunset.

As of March 20, The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California has confirmed that mission control has reformatted the rover's memory so that the damaged one of seven flash memory banks has been bypassed, thereby allowing it to resume normal operations.

"Opportunity can work productively without use of flash memory, as we have shown for the past three months, but with flash we have more flexibility for operations," says Opportunity Project Manager John Callas. "The rover can collect more data than can be returned to Earth on any one day. The flash memory allows data from intensive science activities to be returned over several days."

Launched on July 7, 2003, Opportunity is the twin of the now defunct Spirit rover. It landed on January 25, 2004, three weeks after Spirit, in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars for a mission scheduled to last 90 Martian days, but 11 years later, it's still going strong. It continues to study Martian soil and provide surface calibration for orbital observations by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

JPL says that the Opportunity team will conduct a marathon-length relay run next week to celebrate Opportunity's new record.

Sources: NASA [1], [2]

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