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Some NASA missions are so good, they never seem to end

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, August 5, 2014, 5:38 PM - Although NASA has had some 'rough' patches in its record of Mars exploration, and it was worth exploring them for the learning experience, their incredible track record of extended missions shows just how skilled they are at building and planning these amazing missions.

When NASA sends a mission to Mars, whether it's an orbiter or a lander or a rover, these missions always have a specific timeline in mind. Given that these machines are sent there with a specific purpose in mind, their primary mission usually ranges from a few months to a few years in duration, with some secondary mission objective tacked on for good measure. While some of these missions have stuck to the plan pretty closely, others have gone on to last a lot longer than their original mission designers plans.

2001 Mars Odyssey

The current undisputed king of the Mars orbital missions is the 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Launched in April of 2001, this satellite took a 'speed route' to Mars, pulling into orbit of the planet in late October of that same year. Since then, it has been acting as the primary communication link between Earth and the robot rovers on the surface of Mars - first with Spirit and Opportunity starting in 2004, then for the Phoenix lander in 2008, and then Curiosity as of two years ago - and it remains in that role today. In addition to letting us talk to our robots there, Odyssey plays other roles in the exploration of Mars. It scopes out the surface, using a Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) and up until 2008 a Gamma Ray Spectrometer, looking for minerals and signs of water. It also used to record solar radiation from orbit using the Martian Radiation Experiment (MARIE) until several particularly powerful solar flares in 2003 apparently caused the detector to malfunction.

Opportunity rover at Endeavor Crater

On the planet's surface, the reigning champion is the Mars Exploration Rover B (MER B), also known as Opportunity. Arriving on surface in January of 2004, she bounced along and then emerged from her protective 'balloon' shell, ticking off on NASA's score sheet as a 'hole in one' by dropping right into a small crater the team named Eagle. This was in honour of the Apollo 11 landing, as well as a joking reference to the golf term, meaning sinking a ball two strokes under par. From that landing, this robotic geologist's primary mission was to last for a total of three months, as she roved about at her landing site, searching for clues in the soils and rocks for past water activity on the surface of Mars. She not only accomplished that mission, but pushed on - along with her twin Spirit - to rack up an impressive array of scientific discoveries. What's more, she is still going strong, after 10 years, 6 months, 12 days and counting, and she recently claimed the record for off-world driving distance! All of this is even more remarkable, considering that both MER rovers were designed to be as light as possible, so they have no backup systems to speak of. This has required some ingenuity on the part of the scientists and engineers on the MER team. Although with NASA's dwindling budget and new missions being planned and executed, there is the chance that Opportunity won't make the cut, but for the time being, her explorations continue. 

The Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have spent about nine years circling the planet, with MRO still going. Viking 1 and Viking 2, the first of NASA's missions to land on the surface of Mars, spent years there before their batteries gave out (Viking 1's record of operation was only beat by Opportunity in 2010). Even the Pathfinder lander and tiny rover Sojourner went months beyond their original mission time.

Having these missions continue on, year after year, extension after extension, provides invaluable data for scientists back here on Earth. One of the youngest missions, Curiosity, is one of the most exciting, and perhaps the one with the most potential (at least of those currently on or at the Red Planet). With no reliance on solar power, a larger chassis to deal with the terrain better, and a plethora of scientific instruments, this mission could potentially keep going for decades!

CHECK BACK TOMORROW!: Our extended 'Mars Week' here on www.theweathernetwork.com will be going on for at least another day, as we celebrate the 2nd Earth anniversary of Curiosity's 'Seven Minutes of Terror' landing.

It's Official! NASA confirms Mars Opportunity rover has broken the off-world driving record
NASA's Curiosity rover ticks off one Martian year on the Red Planet
NASA's Mars rovers deliver to us amazing images from the surface of the Red Planet
Among NASA's amazing successes, some missions have not gone off as planned
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