News From Space: Opportunity Hits New Record!

opportunityWith the Curiosity Rover blazing a trail across Mars to find evidence of what the planet once looked like, people often forget about it’s venerable predecessor – the Opportunity Rover. Luckily, Opportunity recently broke a record that put it back in the public eye and into the history books. After nine years into what was initially meant to be a 90 day mission, Opportunity smashed yet another space milestone this week by establishing a new distance driving record.

On Thursday, May 16, the Opportunity rover drove another 80 meters (263 feet) on the Martian surface, bringing her total odometry since landing on the 24th of January, 2004 to 35.760 kilometers (22.220 miles). This effectively put her ahead of the 40 year old driving record set by the Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt back in December of 1972.

Apollo_17_lunar-rover-577x580On that mission, Cernan and Schmitt performed America’s final lunar landing mission and drove their Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV-3) a total of 35.744 kilometers (22.210 miles) over the course of three days on the moon’s surface at the Taurus-Littrow lunar valley. And interestingly enough, Cernan was a very good sport about his record being broken. In a statement made at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, he said:

The record we established with a roving vehicle was made to be broken, and I’m excited and proud to be able to pass the torch to Opportunity.

And since Opportunity still has plenty of juice left, it is now eying the ‘Solar System World Record’ for driving distance on another world, a record that is currently held by the Soviet Union’s remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover. In 1973, Lunokhod 2 traveled 37 kilometers (23 miles) on the surface of Earth’s nearest neighbor. With Opportunity setting course for her next crater rim destination, named “Solander Point”, she is likely to overtake Lunokhod 2’s record in short order!

Opportunity-Route-Map_Sol-3309_Ken-Kremer-580x336Thereafter, Opportunity will rack up ever more distance as the rover continues driving further south to a spot called “Cape Tribulation”. This point is believed to hold caches of clay minerals that formed eons ego when liquid water flowed across this region of the Red Planet. In so doing, Opportunity will not only establish a new record that will last for years to come, it will also be obtaining data that will assist in Curiosity’s own efforts to determine what life was like on Mars in the past.

Far greater than this record-breaking news is the fact that Opportunity has lasted so far beyond her design lifetime, 37 times longer in fact than her initial 3 month “warranty”.

And be sure to check out the full list of record holders for “out-of-this-world” driving, below:


The Moon: The Next Hot Vacation Destination?

apollo17Back in 2006, a series of millionaires shelled out a hefty 20 million dollars for a round trip to the International Space Station. At the time, this was considered quite the privilege, seeing as how civilian personnel almost never get to go into space or spend time on the ISS. But as it turns out, this story may be on its way to becoming small potatoes, thanks in part to a new company that has announced plans to mount commercial voyages to the moon by 2020.

Apollo_11_bootprintThe company is called Golden Spike, a company made up largely of former astronauts and personnel who want to use existing and future technology to make private Lunar trips possible. Its current chairman is Gerry Griffin, Apollo flight director and former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The president and CEO is planetary scientist Alan Stern, former head of all NASA science missions.

Given the cost, Golden Spike is mainly focused on offering its services to governments at the moment, much like how Russia has offering its services to governments looking to get to the ISS in the past few years. In that case and this one, these would be nations that would like to participate in space and planetary exploration but can’t afford a program of their own. But of course, should there be private citizens who want to book a ride and can afford it, they are not likely to be turned away!

Alpha Moon Base at
Alpha Moon Base at

Granted, at one time, science fiction writers were predicting that humanity would have bases on the moon by the early 21st century. But those predictions were largely abandoned thanks to the scrapping of the Apollo program and the fact that the ISS was Earth’s only orbiting space station by the turn of the century. And of course, the only way to get there cost private citizens 20 million bucks!

But this announcement, which comes on the heels of several encouraging developments, may have reignited these hopes. First, there was Reaction Engines Ltd’s announcement of the concept for the Skylon hypersonic engine , followed shortly thereafter by Virgin Galactic’s successful deployment of SpaceShipTwo. Given the pace at which aerospace is evolving and progressing, commercial flight to the moon may be coming, though a little later than previously expected.

However, making it affordable remains a daunting task. As it stands, Golden Spike’s own estimates place the cost of a single trip to the Moon at roughly 1.5 billion dollars. Naturally, the company has also indicated that they intend to make the process more affordable so all people can make the trip. No telling how this will be achieved, but if history is any indication, time has a way of making technology cheaper and more commercially viable.

apollo14So… vacation on the moon anyone? Hell, I can envision an entire line of spas, time shares and getaways on the Lunar surface in the not-too-distant future. Sure, it may not be the Mediterranean or the Mayan Riviera, but I can think of plenty of fun activities for people to do, and the novelty factor alone ought to sell tickets. Rover tours, visits to the Apollo landing sites, low-g sports and anti-aging therapies. Oh, and if Alan Shepard and the Apollo 14 mission are any indication, you can even play golf there!

Check out this video of Golden Spike’s proposed tours to the Moon, or learn more about the company by visiting their website.