NASA's Mars Rovers Still Making Tracks

A map of Spirit's path over the past five years. i i

Click to see Spirit's 4.7-mile path over the past five years. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
A map of Spirit's path over the past five years.

Spirit traversed 4.7 miles after landing at the Columbia Memorial Station (top).

NASA
A map showing the Opportunity's path over the past five years. i i

Click to see a map showing Opportunity's 8.5-mile path over the past five years. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
A map showing the Opportunity's path over the past five years.

The red line traces Opportunity's route from its landing inside Eagle Crater (top) on Jan. 4, 2004, through its 1,742 days on Martian soil (Dec. 17, 2008). Opportunity drove 8.5 miles overall, including two years spent in and on the rim of the half-mile-wide Victoria Crater.

NASA

Talk about getting your money's worth. Five years ago today, NASA's roving geological robot called Spirit landed safely on the planet Mars. It was designed to last 90 days. Five years later, Spirit is still going.

And going.

And going.

The mission would have been considered a success if the rover had made it 600 yards from its landing site. Spirit has now driven nearly five miles.

It's showing signs of wear: The right front wheel of the six-wheeled rover no longer turns, so driving is arduous; and its solar panels are now coated in red Martian dust, so it's not getting as much solar power as it once did. But scientists still expect to learn things about the geology of Spirit's landing site — especially how water might once have flowed in and around the volcanic rocks that make up most of the local terrain.

Spirit isn't alone on Mars. Its twin, the rover Opportunity, continues to crawl across the red dunes on the other side of the Red Planet. That rover landed three weeks after Spirit and was also expected to last about three months.

All of Opportunity's wheels are still turning, so mission directors have plotted a course for a giant crater called Endeavour about seven miles away.

"This has turned into humanity's first overland expedition on another planet," says rover principal investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University.

"When people look back on this period of Mars exploration decades from now," he says, "Spirit and Opportunity may be considered most significant not for the science they accomplished, but for the first time we truly went exploring across the surface of Mars."

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