As we remember the now-officially-dead Opportunity rover this week, one fact keeps sticking out to me: That machine traveled a whopping 28 miles across the surface of another planet. And it did so in short, nerve-wracking spurts.
Opportunity traveled exactly 28.06 miles (45.16). Opportunity drove exactly 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers) during its time on the Martian surface. That's more than the distance traveled by the Apollo 17 Lunar Rover (22.2 miles), the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover (24 miles), the Curiosity Rover (12.3 miles), or Opportunity's partner, the Spirit Rover (4.8 miles).
It's not easy to drive a rover over Mars. Engineers can not control it in real time, given the 20-minute communication delay between the planets. If Oppy started to slide towards a cliff, for example, engineers would not be able to send commands to stop it until it was too late. So they have to send commands to move a short distance, take new data, reassess, and then send fresh commands. As NASA describes an informational page, moving Oppy is a painstaking process.
The rover and its team also overcame many technical malfunctions related to steering, heaters, and onboard memory. Vicious dust storms threatened the rover, covering its solar panels with debris and depriving it of its power source.
Perhaps the best example of the challenges Oppy faced was the 38 Martian days it spent clutched in the cluster, unable to get the Traction needed to push out the soft sand. After the more than 629 feet of well-planned wheel rotations, the team was finally able to push the rover out and continue its journey onward.
In the end, what finally defeated the rover was not a sand dune but a massive Marsh dust storm Nonetheless, the mission was a wild success that revolutionized our understanding of Mars. During its longy trips, Opportunity has captured a wide variety of strange and wonderful images on the Red Planet.