Mars Rover Opportunity Nearing Next (and Final?) Frontier

With not quite 400 feet (122 meters) to go, tomorrow the Mars rover Opportunity should reach the end of a three-year journey to Endeavour crater, a 14-mile-wide (22-kilometer-wide) impact basin near the red planet‘s equator.

The hardy rover has been driving in spurts toward Endeavour since August 2008, when it clambered out of a smaller crater, Victoria. Opportunity spent about two years at that crater exploring inside and around the rim.

The distance from Victoria to Endeavour is a mere 7 miles (11 kilometers). But the rover had to take a circuitous path to avoid potentially hazardous obstacles, more than doubling the mileage from point A to point B.

—Picture courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Oppy also had to drive the entire way *backward*, to avoid putting strain on its glitchy right front wheel.

NASA got the most out of the rover’s scenic route, though, stopping along the way to examine meteorites, pieces of the Martian crust, and evidence for the red planet’s watery past.

(See “Huge Mars Region Shaped by Water, Rover Mission Finds.”)

Oppy is due to arrive at a spot along Endeavour’s rim informally named Spirit Point, in honor of the rover’s fallen sibling—NASA announced in May that the Mars rover Spirit is presumed dead after repeated attempts at communication went unanswered.

Once at Endeavour, Opportunity will poke around the crater’s rim, seeking to get closeup views of clay mineral layers spotted by orbiting spacecraft.

“We will likely spend years at this location,” rover project manager John Callas, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the AP. “What a destination. It’s not just one spot. There’s kilometers of interesting geology to explore.”

But considering that the rover has been working some serious overtime—it’s now in year seven of what should have been a 90-day mission—will this be the last stop for Opportunity? Only time will tell.

Changing Planet