Written by Neha Karl

Illustration of Opportunity rover.

An illustration of Opportunity getting ready to inspect a rock on Mars.

Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

On 22 January 2014, Earth received a selfie from Mars Rover Opportunity – proving she is still going strong 10 years after she first landed on Mars!

The image from Opportunity was taken with her panoramic camera, and showed the rover covered in dust.  When she landed on Mars in 2004, scientists thought she would survive no more than three months, and were amazed when they celebrated the 10th anniversary of Opportunity on Mars last week. CSIRO’s Dr Paulo de Souza, who worked with NASA on the rover design, said “she is way beyond ‘warranty’. Opportunity is older than many of the cars we drive on Earth and there’s no roadside assistance to help her out!”

Opportunity landed on Mars with her twin, Spirit, a decade ago. The rovers needed power to move and communicate with the Earth, so they were fitted with batteries and solar panels. Scientists thought that dust from Mars would settle on the solar panels – making it difficult for the batteries to recharge – destroying the rovers within 90 days of the mission.

To everyone’s surprise, dust devils or whirlwinds on Mars regularly cleaned the solar panels of any dust, making it possible for their batteries to recharge. Unfortunately, Spirit stopped working six years after she landed when her wheel got stuck in sand. But Opportunity is still trundling over the surface of the red planet, and frequently sends phenomenal findings and photos back to Earth – many of which are received by the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in Australia.

Scientists have since sent a more modern rover, Curiosity, to study Mars’ environment and see if it could have supported small life forms in the past. Curiosity, about the size of a minivan, is the largest rover that has been sent to Mars, and her energy source is different to Opportunity. Curiosity gets energy from the radioactive decay of plutonium and scientists have estimated the reactor will last another seven months.

We need water to survive on Earth, and any signs of water on Mars could be a sign that Mars once supported life. The rovers have found evidence of past water in the rocks and minerals. Next steps in the Mars mission are to see if the planet really did have life on it. Opportunity continues to send astonishing images from Mars and – with a little help from the dust devils – could yet see another decade of exploration!

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