Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Opportunity, NASA’s 10-year-old Mars rover, has now boldly gone where no other vehicle has gone – in terms of miles – on the surface of another world.
We know this because of work done here in New Mexico.
On Sunday, Opportunity reached the 25-mile mark, exploring a small section of the Red Planet, a place known as the Endeavour crater. The previous record for extra-terrestrial land travel was held by Lunokhod 2, a Soviet lunar vehicle, which in 1973 surpassed 24.2 miles on the surface of the moon.
Geologist Larry Crumpler of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California, is charged with maintaining a running map of Opportunity’s location and path as well as the geology the rover encounters.
How Crumpler and Opportunity manage this is remarkable.
“This is the first geologic map of another world assembled from the same type of data that we use to make maps here in New Mexico,” museum spokesman Randall Gann said. A geologist observes how different types of rock collectively make up an environment, then “looks at the rocks up-close using a hammer and hand lens, and even samples them for chemical analysis. Opportunity does exactly the same thing, except the samples are analyzed right on the spot, 150 million miles away.”
Before contact with the rover Spirit was lost, Crumpler did the same thing for that vehicle on the other side of Mars.
“It’s nice to be part of a record like this,” Crumpler said. “But the really cool thing is that in those 25 record-breaking miles we have seen more of the Mars landscape than anyone had ever dreamed possible.”
Crumpler is the research curator for volcanology and space sciences at the museum and an associate research professor at the University of New Mexico. He has been a part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover team since 2002 and is responsible for long-term planning at daily team telecoms that help decide where the rover goes and what it does. He has submitted an article to the Journal of Geophysical Research about the geologic mapping at Endeavour crater.
By earthly standards, last Sunday’s drive was a relatively modest 50 yards along the rim of the Endeavour crater. By Martian standards, it was record shattering.
The achievement is even more remarkable, said Opportunity project manager John Callas, “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.”
In a news release, NASA confirmed that Opportunity established the new record on the mission’s 3,735th Martian day, or sol. “A drive of 157 feet (48 meters) on Sol 3735 brought Opportunity’s total odometry to 25.01 miles (40.25 kilometers),” the statement said.
Opportunity completed its three-month prime mission in April 2004 and has continued operations in “bonus” extended missions, NASA said. “It has found several types of evidence of ancient environments with abundant liquid water.”