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It's Official! NASA confirms Mars Opportunity rover has broken the off-world driving record

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Sutherland

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Sutherland

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, July 29, 2014, 2:14 PM - As I wrote in a previous story, NASA's Opportunity rover has driven a long way in her 10 years on Mars, racking up a total of 39.44 kilometres by mid-to-late April of this year, which should have broken the all-time record for off-world driving distance. Well, now it's official! NASA has just confirmed Opportunity's record, as she surpassed the 40 km mark in late July!

Up until recently, Russia's Lunokhod 2 lunar rover held the record for off-world driving distance, with a total of 39 kilometres driven back in 1973. That record has fluctuated a bit over the past year, though. Originally, the record marker was set at 37 km, which is the final value Lunokhod 2's odometer returned, with some adjustments for wheel slippage in the lunar dust. As of June 2013, just when Opportunity was approaching that marker, the Russians pushed their record up to 42 km, based on images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, that showed Lunokhod 2's path in greater detail. Subsequent discussions with their American counterparts ended with an agreed-upon final distance of 39 kilometres, which has stuck since.

Now, Opportunity's odometer surpassed that distance back in April, but probably just to give some 'wiggle room,' NASA held off until she (the mission operators prefer to refer to Opportunity as 'her' or "she" instead of 'it') ticked off an even 40 kilometres (or 25 miles). According to the NASA/JPL graphic to the left (click image to enlarge), she surpassed that with the latest tally on July 28!

"The Lunokhod missions still stand as two signature accomplishments of what I think of as the first golden age of planetary exploration, the 1960s and '70s," Steve Squyres of Cornell University said in a statement. Squyres is the principal investigator for Opportunity and Spirit, NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers. "We're in a second golden age now, and what we've tried to do on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity has been very much inspired by the accomplishments of the Lunokhod team on the moon so many years ago. It has been a real honor to follow in their historical wheel tracks."

To honor Lunokhod 2's accomplishment, Opportunity's science team chose a 20-metre-wide crater on the outer rim of Endeavor Crater on Mars (Opportunity's current location), and named it after the lunar rover.

Opportunity's record on Mars is astonishing, especially when you take into consideration that she was only designed for a three-month-long mission, but has been operational for over 10 years. Compared to Lunokhod 2's roughly 4-month journey on the Moon, it may seem like Opportunity has been really taking her time (given that they have roughly the same speed limits). However, this plucky little Mars explorer (along with her sister, Spirit) has been racking up quite the impressive list of discoveries along the way.

"Opportunity has driven farther than any other wheeled vehicle on another world," John Callas, the MER project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the statement. "This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance. But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance."

Opportunity's full 10-year journey mapped out. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS

What's next for Opportunity? According to NASA, she is headed for a marathon distance - 42.2 kilometres - which will bring her to a formation on Mars that scientists have nicknamed "Marathon Valley" - a valley carved into the Martian soil that satellite data has suggested may have layers of clay for the rover to investigate.

CHECK BACK SOON: It's unofficial Mars Week here on www.theweathernetwork.com, so check back each day this week for a new story about the Red Planet, as we lead up to Curiosity's 2nd anniversary on Mars!

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