By Alex DeMetrick

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — If it had lungs and Mars had oxygen, the little rover named “Opportunity” could blow out 10 birthday candles Saturday.

Alex DeMetrick reports that’s how long it’s been exploring the red planet.

On Jan. 25, 2004, Opportunity rolled onto the planet Mars, and kept on rolling.

“It’s been going 10 years, which is just amazing. Much, much longer than we ever thought,” said Jim O’Leary, Maryland Science Center.

The little rover was only expected to last 90 days and cover six-tenths of a mile. It’s traveled 24, taking more than 170,000 pictures and studying the ground under its treaded feet. It found evidence water could have once been there.

A decade of discoveries later, NASA scientists now think Mars once looked like this:

“Three-point-eight billion years ago, Mars was wet and warm. It was raining. It was probably snowing in the higher elevations. It was much more Earth-like,” said Michelle Thaller, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Opportunity laid that groundwork, and it turns out, Mars helped. Martian dust covering the rover’s solar panels was choking off power.

“So after awhile, the rover started losing energy. We thought, after awhile, it’s just going to die off. Well, what happened, a little breeze came by, blew that dust right off and the solar panels were back working full blast again,” O’Leary said.

The little rover worked so well, it helped open the door to bigger and better machines.

Curiosity, a rover the size of a small car, made a spectacular landing on Mars in 2012, quickly finding the hard evidence of past water that Opportunity hinted at.

Now another spacecraft is on the way to study why Mars dried out.

“We want to know what the culprit was. This is kind of a CSI forensic investigation into what killed Mars,” Thaller said.

And while Opportunity lives, it is still exploring a long way from home.

How much longer Opportunity runs is up to more than Mars. The rover costs $14 million a year to operate–money NASA may redirect to a newer mission.

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