Nasa’s Martian rover Opportunity has become the first spacecraft to have travelled a Marathon-run distance on the surface of another celestial body, having accomplished the feat in 11 years and two months.
Controllers at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) celebrated the milestone as the rover, operating on the surface of Mars since January 2004, traversed the rim of the Endeavour crater, reaching what had been named the Marathon Valley.
"This is the first time any human enterprise has exceeded the distance of a Marathon on the surface of another world," said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at JPL. "A first time happens only once."
Already a record-setting vehicle, Opportunity last year beat Soviet lunar rover Lunokhod 2, the previous holder of the record for the longest distance driven on another celestial body. However, what took Curiosity ten years, Lunokhod managed in five months.
"This mission isn't about setting distance records, of course; it's about making scientific discoveries on Mars and inspiring future explorers to achieve even more," said Steve Squyres, Opportunity principal investigator at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool."
The marathon mark came during Opportnity’s 3,968th Martian day, or sol. The rover was originally expected to operate only for three months, looking for evidence of liquid water and moisture in the soil.
As the rover continued to operate far beyond expectations for its lifespan, scientists chose the rim of Endeavour Crater as a long-term destination. Since 2011, examinations of Endeavour's rim have provided information about ancient wet conditions less acidic, and more favourable for microbial life, than the environment that left clues found earlier in the mission.