Twelve years ago this week, NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity landed on the Martian surface and started beaming back images of what the red planet was like, notes NASA’s blog. But perhaps even more impressive than the images it sent back is the fact that the Opportunity is still up and running on the dusty planet after 12 years. It was originally only supposed to work for 90 days.
Its extraordinary extended life is due to several factors including software engineering ingenuity and, believe it or not, Martian dust devils. Contrary to their awesome-sounding name, Martian dust devils aren’t wild creatures roaming the planet, they’re actually small whirling columns of air that glide over the surface of the planet.
The reason the Opportunity was only expected to last 90 days is because its large solar panels, from which it draws all its power, were expected to be covered by Martian dust in three months tops, notes TechCrunch. The dust would block the solar rays from hitting the panels, causing the Opportunity to run out of juice.
However, a luck would have it, the planet’s dust devils seemed to have continuously cleaned the dust from the Opportunity’s solar panels, keeping it alive and moving. The regular cleaning by dust devils, along with some clever software updates from NASA, have kept the Opportunity operational long after it was supposed to be dead. And that extra life hasn’t been wasted. As TechCrunch points out in recent years the rover was used to examine a series of large craters in order to peer back into the geological history of the planet. The Opportunity has also a key player in understanding the role water once had on the planet.
Yet while the Opportunity is still sending back images and moving—it's traveled the longest distance of any vehicle on the red planet—it probably won’t last another 12 years. Two of its sensors no longer work and its joints occasionally lock up, notes TechCrunch. But here’s to you, Mars rover. May we all last 48 times longer than we should.