Eleven years ago the Mars Opportunity Rover landed on the surface of the planet for a planned 90 sol (Mars day) mission, nearly 4000 sols later the rover is still operating. This week it achieved a another significant milestone becoming the first rover to complete the equivalent of a marathon driving across the surface of the planet. A milestone that may be hard to beat until Humans are working on the surface of the planet.
Unfortunately the future for the rover is unknown for a couple of reasons, the primary being we just don’t know how much longer it can last it has already operated for 44 times as long as designed and has recently had a software patch to get around a problem with the flash memory.
The other reason the future is in doubt is the 2016 NASA budget doesn’t include funding to continue the operations of the rover. While this was also the case in the 2015 budget congress added funding back so we can be hopeful that they will do the same again, however there is no guarantee.
So how has it lasted this long? There are a couple of answers to this, the first being that it is solar powered so as long as the hardware survives and the solar panels can receive sunlight it should be able to operate. Here is where Mars itself has helped the rover, over the 11 years of operation the power from the solar panels has dropped as dust accumulated on them and then been boosted again when a dust devil (add link) cleans the panels.
Another obverse answer is the rover was well designed, while the initial mission was for 90 sols the designers ensured the rover was capable of operating longer, personally I don’t know if they ever expected it to operate this long but it is a testament to good design and engineering that it has.
Why continue to fund it? Again there are a couple of answers to this, first it is still returning valuable data, there is no other vehicle in that region of Mars and everything it finds helps us to better understand the planet.
Second the longer it operates the more we learn about long distance remote operations of vehicles, unfortunately the older it gets the more issues are likely to occur, as these happen we will learn to adapt the vehicle to handle these issues until the time comes when it is not possible to do that any longer. When that happens the Rover will have completed an extraordinary mission and set some records that will be hard to beat.
To learn more about this amazing vehicle and see the numerous images it has returned on Mars check out the mission page.