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Opportunity celebrates nine years on Mars

Rover has lasted 36 times longer than planned mission

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Mean time between failure wonks take note: The Opportunity rover launched in 2003 and expected to survive 90 days on Mars today racks up nine years of continuous operations on the red planet. That's 3195 days longer than first planned.

Opportunity was hauled into orbit by a Delta II rocket on July 7th, 2003. A little over six months later, on January 25th (UTC), the craft's final descent saw it deploy a pyramid-shaped cluster of airbags that saw it bounce across the Martian surface to dispel the last of its momentum. That plan worked rather well, with the rover emerging into a small crater that may have been 25 kms from its intended landing space but presented some interesting scientific possibilities.

Unlike the Curiosity rover that landed last year, Opportunity and its stranded sibling Spirit have no internal power source and instead rely on solar energy and onboard batteries. That design has limited the craft's activities, as it can't gather energy during the Martian night. Much of the energy the batteries store is used to keeping its systems warm enough to keep functioning.

The rover has nonetheless clocked up 35.46 kilometers of trundling around the plains of Meridian and is still well enough to send back images like that below of Matijevic Hill, a region NASA hopes offers some evidence of wetter, less-acidic, regions of mars that may hint at a life-friendly environment having been present in the past.

Matijevic Hill, current location of the Opportunity Rover

Matijevic Hill, location of the Opportunity Rover as of November 2012

During its time on Mars the rover has spotted all sorts of interesting things, among them a patch of “blueberries” that appear to have been formed with the aid of microbes, evidence of flowing water and a boulder that looks as if it could be a meteorite. That boulder's reasonably decent condition, Mars boffins suggest, indicate it descended through a denser atmosphere than the planet possesses today, again indicating that the planet was once rather more hospitable than it is today.

The Opportunity Mission is open-ended, but NASA concedes the rover won't last forever as the craft's batteries become less efficient and its increasingly dusty solar panels become less efficient.

In other recent Martian action, Curiosity has for the first time taken photos of Mars at night. The nuclear-powered space tank pointed its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)  instrument at a rock named Sayunei,bathed it with white and ultraviolet light and produce the result visible here. ®

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