Record for Longest Mars Mission Ever May be Broken
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit recorded this fisheye view with its rear hazard-avoidance camera after completing a drive during the 2,169th Martian day, or sol, of Spirit's mission on Mars (Feb. 8, 2010).
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Today could be huge for NASA's Mars rover Spirit. If the wheeled robot survives its winter hibernation, today is the day when Spirit officially set a new record for longest-running mission on Mars in history.

"When Spirit comes out of hibernation, she can claim Viking 1's record for longest-lived surface mission," NASA posted on the Mars rovers' Twitter page. "Opportunity, still driving, hopes to break the Viking 1 record too."

NASA's Viking 1 Mars lander record, set nearly 20 years ago, was for six years and 116 days of operation on the Martian surface.

Spirit and her sister rover, Opportunity, are breaking that record as they tackle their seventh Earth year exploring Mars. The longevity of the rovers is particularly astounding given that their original missions were only slated to last for 90 days.

Spirit, as the first of the two rovers to touch down on Mars in January 2004, will keep hold the record over Opportunity only if she wakes up once the Martian spring arrives.

Spirit fell silent on Mars on March 31, when it skipped a planned communications session with Earth. It may be hibernating through the harsh Martian winter, and if it is, it will not wake up for several more weeks.

If Spirit does not wake up, then Opportunity will take the longest Mars mission mantle on May 20, when it breaks the 2,245-day mark exploring the Martian surface.

In January of this year, after months of trying to rescue Spirit from a sand trap it rolled into in May 2009, NASA rechristened the rover as a stationary lander. Opportunity, meanwhile, is doing fine and headed to a giant crater called Endeavour on the Martian plains of Meridiani Planum.

Opportunity will match the Viking record on May 20. So even if Spirit doesn't wake up, one of the rovers will set a new duration record for Mars.

Opportunity has already hit another milestone, passing the 20-kilometer (12.43-mile) mark in March. Since then, Opportunity has tacked on another 0.55 miles to its odometer. The rover has been stopping in between drives to recharge its batteries as the winter solstice approaches and the amount of available sunlight declines.

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