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NASA's Opportunity Mars Rover Marks 10th Year on Red Planet

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Jan 24, 2014 12:43 PM EST
composite self-portrait made by Opportunity about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars.
Ten years ago NASA's Opportunity rover landed on Mars for what was to be a 90-day mission. The resilient rover is still running today, holding the American record for most miles driven by a spacecraft as it goes on to collect worthwhile data from the Red Planet. This composite self-portrait was made by Opportunity about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars. (Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

Ten years ago NASA's Opportunity rover landed on Mars for what was to be a 90-day mission. The resilient rover is still running today, holding the American record for most miles driven by a spacecraft as it goes on to collect worthwhile data from the Red Planet.

On Thursday (Jan. 24) the Opportunity celebrated it's 10th anniversary on Mars in solitude, on the other side of the planet from NASA's newest Mars rover Curiosity.

But as an anniversary present to NASA scientists, 4-billion-year-old rock samples recently collected by Opportunity have proven to be older than any rock samples examined earlier in its mission. These rock samples "reveal more favorable conditions for microbial life than any evidence previously examined by investigations with Opportunity," said Ray Arvidson, the deputy principal investigator for the Opportunity mission.

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"The older you look, the better it gets in terms of habitability at this location," Arvidson said Thursday in a press conference, according to Space.com.

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program called the rock samples a gift that came with the serendipitous timing of the Opportunity's 10-year anniversary.

"We're finding more places where Mars reveals a warmer and wetter planet in its history. This gives us greater incentive to continue seeking evidence of past life on Mars," he said.

In a statement, NASA said that while Opportunity's 10-year anniversary is celebrated, mission scientists will look forward to to the discoveries that lie ahead. The space agency said that Opportunity continues to contribute vital information that leads to a better understanding of Mars, which will help advance plans for future missions to the Red Planet, including a human mission to the planet in the 2030s.

Having driven 24 miles (38.7 kilometers) from where it landed on Jan. 24, 2004, Opportunity holds the American distance record for overall off-planet driving and is encroaching upon the overall leader, the Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 rover, which covered 26 miles (42 km) on the Moon in 1973, according to Space.com.

The golf cart-sized rover is still going strong, though some signs of age are showing, such as an "arthritic" robotic arm.

"We're looking at the legacy of Opportunity's first decade this week, but there's more good stuff ahead," said Steve Squyres the Opportunity mission's principal investigator. "We are examining a rock right in front of the rover that is unlike anything we've seen before. Mars keeps surprising us, just like in the very first week of the mission."

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