Image: NASA Mars rover Opportunity
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.
As NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity neared the ninth anniversary of its landing on Mars, the rover was working in the 'Matijevic Hill' area seen in this view from Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam). Images for this mosaic obtained Nov. 19 to Dec. 3, 2012.
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updated 1/24/2013 12:35:48 PM ET 2013-01-24T17:35:48

The older, smaller cousin of NASA's huge Mars rover Curiosity is quietly celebrating a big milestone Thursday — nine years on the surface of the Red Planet.

NASA's Opportunity rover landed on Mars the night of Jan. 24, 2004 PST (just after midnight EST on Jan. 25), three weeks after its twin, Spirit, touched down. Spirit stopped operating in 2010, but Opportunity is still going strong, helping scientists better understand the Red Planet's wetter, warmer past.

"No one could've imagined how good the exploration and scientific discovery would be for this vehicle, looking from the perspective of nine years ago," said John Callas, Opportunity's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It's been a phenomenal accomplishment."

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The headline-stealing Curiosity rover, for its part, touched down on Aug. 5, 2012, marking the next step in Mars exploration. The car-size Curiosity weighs about 1 ton — five times more than either Spirit or Opportunity.

Long-lived rovers
Spirit and Opportunity were originally supposed to spend three months searching for evidence of past water activity on the Red Planet. The golf-cart-size robots found plenty of such signs at their separate landing sites, showing that Mars was not always the cold and arid planet we know today. [ Most Amazing Discoveries by Spirit and Opportunity ]

For example, in 2007 Spirit uncovered an ancient hydrothermal system in Gusev Crater, suggesting that two key ingredients for life as we know it — liquid water and an energy source — were both present in some parts of Mars long ago.

And Opportunity is currently inspecting clay deposits along the rim of Mars' huge Endeavour Crater. Clays form in relatively neutral (as opposed to acidic or basic) water, so the area may once have been capable of supporting primitive microbial life, researchers say.

"This is our first glimpse ever at conditions on ancient Mars that clearly show us a chemistry that would've been suitable for life at the Opportunity site," Opportunity principal investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, said of the discovery at a conference last month.

The rovers rolled far beyond their 90-day warranties. Spirit finally stopped communicating with Earth in March 2010, after getting mired in soft sand and failing to maneuver into a position that would allow it to slant its solar panels toward the sun over the 2009-2010 Martian winter. NASA declared the rover dead in 2011.

But Opportunity keeps chugging along. It has put 22.03 miles (35.46 kilometers) on its odometer since landing on Mars — just 1 mile (1.6 km) off the all-time record for most ground covered on the surface of another world. The Soviet Union's unmanned Lunokhod 2 rover holds that mark, traveling 23 miles (37 km) on the moon back in 1973.

The great engineering that allowed Spirit and Opportunity to keep roving for so long is a big part of the six-wheeled robots' legacy, mission team members say.

"These are magnificently designed machines," Callas told SPACE.com. "We really have greatly expanded the exploration envelope by having a vehicle that can not only last so long but stay in very good health over that time, such that we can continue exploring."

Still in good health
While Opportunity is showing signs of its advanced age, such as an arthritic robotic arm, the rover remains in good shape overall.

"Its health right now is miraculously good," Callas said.

Still, the rover team is treating every day as a gift at this point, knowing that Opportunity could conk out at pretty much any time. Indeed, the sun will rise one day without a message from Opportunity, and its handlers will have to face the rover's death and the end of an amazing mission.

"It's going to be hard; it'll be the end of a great era," Callas said. "But we'll have to remember that we've had such a good run."

Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter@michaeldwall or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

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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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