Uncredited  /  AP
This image provided by NASA shows the late-afternoon shadow cast by the Mars rover Opportunity at Endeavour Crater. The six-wheel rover landed on Mars in January 2004 and is still going strong. (AP Photo/NASA)
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updated 1/21/2013 10:53:55 AM ET 2013-01-21T15:53:55

Opportunity, NASA's other Mars rover, has tooled around the red planet for so long it's easy to forget it's still alive.

Some 5,000 miles away from the limelight surrounding Curiosity's every move, Opportunity this week quietly embarks on its tenth year of exploration — a sweet milestone since it was only tasked to work for three months.

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"Opportunity is still going. Go figure," said mission deputy principal investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis.

True, it's not as snazzy as Curiosity, the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever designed. It awed the world with its landing near the Martian equator five months ago.

After so many years crater-hopping, Opportunity is showing its age: It has an arthritic joint in its robotic arm and it drives mostly backward due to a balky front wheel — more annoyances than show-stoppers.

For the past several months, it has been parked on a clay-rich hill along the western rim of Endeavour Crater that's unlike any scenery it encountered before. It plans to wrap up at its current spot in the next several months and then drive south where the terrain looks even riper for discoveries.

Long before Curiosity became everybody's favorite rover, Opportunity was the darling.

The six-wheel, solar-powered rover parachuted to Eagle Crater in Mars' southern hemisphere on Jan. 24, 2004, weeks after its twin Spirit landed on the opposite side of the planet.

During the first three months, there were frequent updates about the twin rovers' antics. The world, it seemed, followed every trail, every rock touched and even kept up with Spirit's health scare that it eventually recovered from.

Opportunity immediately lived up to its name, touching down in an ancient lakebed brimming with minerals that formed in the presence of water, a key ingredient for life. After grinding into rocks and sifting through dirt, Opportunity made one of the enduring finds on Mars: Signs abound of an ancient environment that was warmer and wetter than today's dusty, cold desert state.

Spirit, on the other hand, landed in a less interesting spot and had to drive some distance to find geologic evidence of past water. After six productive years wheeling around, it fell silent in 2010, forever stuck in Martian sand.

Opportunity went on to poke into four other craters, uncovering even more hints that water existed on Mars long ago.

The rover "is not like a lander staring at the same real estate. We've gone to different terrains, explored different geology and answered different questions on Mars," said project manager John Callas of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the $984 million project.

What's still unknown is whether Mars ever had the right environmental conditions to support microscopic organisms — something Curiosity is trying to answer during its two-year mission. Besides water, it's generally agreed that a power source like the sun and carbon-based compounds are essential for life.

Unlike the flashier Curiosity, armed with the latest tools, Opportunity is not equipped with a carbon detector. Its latest crater destination, which it arrived at last year after an epic three-year journey, contains sections rich in clay deposits. Clays typically form in the presence of water and can be a fine preserver of carbon material. But scientists will never know.

As it enters its tenth year on Mars, Opportunity will continue studying the chemical makeup and pinning down the ages of several interesting rocks at its location for several more months before adding more mileage to the 22 miles it has logged since landing.

As for the hunt for carbon, all eyes are on Curiosity, set to drive later this year to the base of a mountain where rock layers containing clay minerals have been detected.

Callas, the JPL project manager, said Curiosity has a long way to go to catch up with Opportunity, which has nearly a decade head start on the Martian surface.

"Mars is big enough for more than two rovers to explore," he said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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