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Mars Rover Opportunity Sets U.S. Record for Distance Driven on Another Planet

May 17, 2013 12:12 PM EDT
Opportunity Rover
Scientists are baffled over the sudden appearance of what appears to be a doughnut-shaped rock next to the Mars probe Opportunity.

(Photo : NASA/JPL/Cornell University)

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity set the record for the farthest total distance for any driving on a world other than Earth by a U.S.-developed vehicle on Thursday after traveling 80 meters to finish the day with an odometer that read 35.76 kilometers.

The record comes as Opportunity began a multi-week trek this week from an area where it has been hard at work since mid-2011 and is head to an area roughly 2.2 kilometers away called “Solander Point.”

The rover’s accomplishment is especially significant given that its original assignment consisted of driving roughly 2,000 feet in search of evidence that water once existed on the Red Planet; in all, Opportunity has operated 36 times longer on Mars than the three months planned as its prime mission.

Previously, the record for distance was held by the Lunar Roving Vehicle, which Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt drove during their three-day exploration of the Moon, racking up 36.744 miles in all.

Far from feeling outperformed, however, Cernan told Opportunity team member Jim Rice of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center that the record they established more than 40 years ago “was made to be broken,” adding that he feels “proud to be able to pass the torch to Opportunity.”

Currently, the international record for driving distance on another world is held by the Soviet Union’s remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover, which traveled 37 kilometers during its trip to the Moon in 1973.

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory experienced a small scare in regards to Opportunity toward the end of April when the robot switched into a type of standby mode on its own after a period of minimal communication between it and NASA due to a solar conjunction in which Mars passed nearly behind the Sun.

However, the vehicle has since kicked back into gear and is back to work in its quest to decipher the history of Mars’ climate.

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