Mars marathon man covers the distance to set a record

The 42km journey completed in just ... 11 years 2 months

This map shows the rover’s entire traverse from landing Eagle Crater to its current location at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS

The Mars rover Opportunity has set a world record for the quickest marathon yet completed, covering the required 26.2 miles or 42km in a breathtaking 11 years and two months.

The world in question, however, is Mars and its Red Planet marathon completed on Tuesday last is the first marathon ever run there.

This is pretty good going for a rover that had an initial primary mission of just three months when it landed on Mars in 2004. It has lasted considerably longer than that however and continues to explore the rim of Endeavour Crater.

Its sister rover Spirit gave up the race long ago, dropping out of communications with ground observatories on march 22, 2010. Even so it still managed to cover 7.7km before it went silent.

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The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is in the driving seat when it comes to controlling the rovers. Staff at the lab were delighted with Opportunity's achievement.

“This is the first time any human enterprise has exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of another world,” said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at the lab. “A first time happens only once.”

The goal was not out to cover ground however, it is all about scientific discoveries on Mars, said Steve Squyres, an Opportunity principal investigator at Cornell University, New York. "Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool."

The rover continues with its mission, looking for signs that Mars once had abundant supplies of liquid water, which in turn could have supported microbial life. It reached Endeavour Crater in 2011 and has been in that neighbourhood ever since.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.