Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon: Out-of-This-World-Records

This chart, prepared by NASA illustrates comparisons among the driving distances by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of the planetary bodies other than Earth (as of February 13, 2019, only the moon and Mars). Opportunity rover, which declared dead after record-breaking 15-years on the Martian surface also holds the off-Earth roving distance record after accruing 45.16 kilometers (28.06 miles) of driving on Mars.

Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon
This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth’s moon and Mars. As of February 13, 2019, Opportunity holds the off-Earth roving distance record after accruing 28.06 miles (45.16 kilometers) of driving on Mars. Image source: NASA

Driving distances of rovers on Mars and the Moon

Yutu (China) – 0.1 km (330 feet) (estimated)

2013-2016

Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon: Yutu Moon rover
Yutu rover on the lunar surface, photographed by the Chang’e 3 lander. Image source: Wikipedia

Yutu (literally: “Jade Rabbit”) robotic lunar rover was a part of the Chang’e 3, an unmanned lunar exploration mission operated by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). It was launched at 17:30 UTC on 1 December 2013, and reached the Moon’s surface on 14 December 2013. The mission marks the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976 (after Luna 24, an uncrewed space mission of the Soviet Union’s Luna programme) and the first rover to operate there since the Soviet Lunokhod 2 ceased operations on 11 May 1973.

The rover encountered operational difficulties toward the end of the second lunar day after surviving and recovering successfully from the first 14-day lunar night.

A lunar day lasts 29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes. And this the same time it takes for the Moon to orbit around the Earth. Because the moon is tidally locked with the Earth, that’s the reason why we can see only one side of it.

With respect to the background stars, however, the Moon only takes 27 days and 7 hours for the sky to completely rotate back to its original position (a sidereal moon day).

It was unable to move after the end of the second lunar night, though it continued to gather useful information for some months afterward. In October 2015, Yutu set the record for the longest operational period for a rover on the Moon.

On 31 July 2016, Yutu ceased to operate after a total of 31 months, well beyond its original expected lifespan of three months.

Yutu-2 (China) – 0.1 km (330 feet) (estimated)

2019-Present

This video shows China’s Yutu-2 rover rolling across the lunar surface after its initial deployment from Chang’e-4. Credit: CNSA / CLEP

Yutu-2 is a part of China’s Chang’e 4 mission, which has landed on the far side of the Moon on January 3, 2019. It was a feat no nation or space agency (including NASA) has accomplished until now.

It is solar-powered, RHU-heated (Radioisotope Heater Unit, a small device that provides heat through radioactive decay), and propelled by six wheels. The rover’s nominal operating time is three months, but after the experience with Yutu rover in 2013, the rover design was improved and Chinese engineers are hopeful it will operate for a few years.

Sojourner (NASA) – 0.1 km (330 feet)

1997

You can explore the landing site of NASA’s Pathfinder mission with your mouse or mobile device. This 360-degree view uses images taken in 1997 displayed using present-day technology. It includes the lander’s companion rover, Sojourner -the first rover on Mars- and top science targets.

Sojourner is the Mars Pathfinder robotic Mars rover that landed on July 4, 1997, in the Ares Vallis region, and explored Mars for around three months.

Mars Pathfinder was designed to be a demonstration of the technology necessary to deliver a lander and a free-ranging robotic rover to the surface of Mars in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

The lander formally named the Carl Sagan Memorial Station following its successful touchdown, and the rover, named Sojourner after American civil rights crusader Sojourner Truth, both outlived their design lives – the lander by nearly three times, and the rover by 12 times.

Sojourner was the first rover on Mars. It has traveled a distance of just over 100 meters (330 feet) by the time communication was lost.

Spirit (NASA) – 7.73 km (4.8 mi)

2004-2010

Mars Rover Spirit’s Entire Journey on Mars – Time Lapse

Spirit, also known as MER-A (Mars Exploration Rover – A) or MER-2, is a robotic rover on Mars, active from 2004 to 2010. It was one of two rovers of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission (the other was Opportunity).

It landed successfully on Mars at on January 4, 2004. Its twin, Opportunity (MER-B), which landed on the other side of the planet three weeks later.

Spirit far outlasted her planned 90-day mission. It also logged 7.73 km (4.8 mi) of driving instead of the planned 600 meters (0.4 mi), allowing more extensive geological analysis of Martian rocks and planetary surface features.

Among her myriad discoveries, Spirit found evidence that Mars was once much wetter than it is today and helped scientists better understand the Martian wind.

In May 2009, the rover became embedded in soft soil at a site called “Troy” with only five working wheels to aid in the rescue effort. After months of testing and carefully planned maneuvers, NASA ended efforts to free the rover and eventually ended the mission on May 25, 2011.

Lunokhod 1 (USSR) – 10.54 km (6.55 mi)

1970-1971

Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon: Lunokhod 1
Lunokhod 1

Lunokhod 1 (moon walker in Russian) was the first of two unmanned lunar rovers landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union as part of its Lunokhod program. In 1970, it became the first remote-controlled robot “rover” to freely move across the surface of an astronomical object beyond the Earth (Lunokhod 0 was launched in February 1969 but failed to reach orbit). Although only designed for a lifetime of three lunar days, Lunokhod-1 operated on the lunar surface for 321 days between November 17, 1970, and September 14, 1971 (eleven lunar days) and traversed a total distance of 10.54 km (6.55 miles). Lunokhod 1 used eight rigid rim wire mesh wheels with bicycle-type spokes and metal cleats for traction. Each of the eight wheels was independently powered. Image courtesy: Serguei Matrossov.

Curiosity (NASA) – 20.4 km (12.68 mi)

2012-Present

Curiosity Mars rover self portrait
This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the “Mojave” site, where its drill collected the mission’s second taste of Mount Sharp. Image: NASA.gov Some conspiracy theorists ask “where is the robotic arm?”, “who took this photo?”, “who holds the camera” etc. The view does not include the rover’s robotic arm. Wrist motions and turret rotations on the arm allowed MAHLI to acquire the mosaic’s component images. The arm was positioned out of the shot in the images, or portions of images, that were used in this mosaic. This process was used previously in acquiring and assembling Curiosity self-portraits taken at sample-collection sites “Rocknest” (PIA16468), “John Klein” (PIA16937) and “Windjana” (PIA18390).

Part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, Curiosity is the largest and most capable rover ever sent to Mars. It launched November 26, 2011, and landed on Mars at 10:32 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, 2012 (1:32 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6, 2012).

Curiosity set out to answer the question: Did Mars ever have the right environmental conditions to support small life forms called microbes? Early in its mission, Curiosity’s scientific tools found chemical and mineral evidence of past habitable environments on Mars. It continues to explore the rock record from a time when Mars could have been home to microbial life.

Curiosity is more mobile than any previous rover

Curiosity is a big, car-sized rover with a dry mass of 899 kg (1,982 lb). It is fit to climb over knee-high obstacles and travels about 100 feet (30 meters) per hour, depending on instrument activity, the terrain, and visibility its cameras have of the path ahead.

The rover carries a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay. This electrical power source has already far exceeded its required operating lifespan on Mars’ surface of at least one full Martian year (687 Earth days). The generator provides greater mobility and flexibility in operating the rover regardless of season or sunlight. The steady flow of electrical power has enhanced the science payload capability and permitted consideration of landing sites at a greater range of latitudes than was possible on previous rovers.

Apollo 16 Lunar Rover (NASA) – 27.1 km (16.8 mi)

1972

Apollo 16 astronauts John Young and Charlie Duke take the lunar rover for a spin on the surface of the moon in this film footage of what became known as the “lunar rover Grand Prix”. This footage was shot on 16mm film and is silent.

Crewed by Commander John Young, Lunar Module Pilot Charles Duke, and Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly, Apollo 16 was the tenth manned mission in the United States Apollo space program, the fifth and penultimate to land on the Moon and the first to land in the lunar highlands.

It was launched on April 16, 1972, the mission lasted 11 days, 1 hour, and 51 minutes, and concluded on April 27.

The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) was an electric vehicle designed to operate in the low-gravity vacuum of the Moon and to be capable of traversing the lunar surface, allowing the Apollo astronauts to extend the range of their surface extravehicular activities. Three LRVs were driven on the Moon, one on Apollo 15 by astronauts David Scott and Jim Irwin, one on Apollo 16 by John Young and Charles Duke, and one on Apollo 17 by Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

On Apollo 16 the vehicle traversed 26.7 km (16.8 mi) in 3 hours, 26 minutes of total driving time. The longest of the three traverses was 11.6 km (7.2 mi) and the LRV reached a maximum distance of 4.5 km (2.8 mi) from the Lunar Module.

Apollo 15 Lunar Rover (NASA) – 27.8 km (17.3 mi)

1971

Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon: Mons Hadley
Image from Apollo 15, taken by Commander David Scott at the end of EVA-1. Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin is seen with the Lunar Roving Vehicle, with Mount Hadley in the background. Seen on the back of the Rover are two SCBs mounted on the gate, along with the rake, both pairs of tongs, the extension handle with scoop probably attached, and the penetrometer. Note that the TV camera is pointed down, in the stowed position. Image source: NASA

Apollo 15 was the ninth manned mission in the United States’ Apollo program, the eighth to be successful, and the fourth to land on the Moon.

It was crewed by David R. Scott (Commander), Alfred M. Worden (Command Module Pilot, CMP) and James B. Irwin (Lunar Module Pilot, LMP).

The mission began on July 26, 1971, and ended on August 7, the lunar surface exploration taking place between July 30 and August 2.

On Apollo 15 the Lunar Roving Vehicle traversed 27.8 km (17.3 mi) in 3 hours, 2 minutes of total driving time. The longest of the three traverses was 12.5 km (7.8 mi) and the LRV reached a maximum distance of 5 km (3.1 mi) from the Lunar Module.

Apollo 17 Lunar Rover (NASA) – 35.74 km (22.2 mi)

1972

Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon: Apollo 17 Extravehicular Activity
On December 13, 1972, scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt (born July 3, 1935) is photographed standing next to a huge, split lunar boulder during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), which transported Schmitt and Eugene A. Cernan (March 14, 1934 – January 16, 2017) to this extravehicular station from their Lunar Module (LM), is seen in the background. The mosaic is made from two frames from Apollo 17 Hasselblad magazine 140. The two frames were photographed by Cernan. Photo: NASA

Launched on December 7, 1972, with a crew made up of Eugene Cernan (Commander), Ronald Evans (Command Module Pilot, CMP), and Harrison Schmitt (Lunar Module Pilot, LMP), Apollo 17 was the final mission of NASA’s Apollo program and the last mission in which humans traveled to and walked on the Moon.

Cernan, Evans, and Schmitt returned to Earth on December 19 after a 12-day mission.

On Apollo 17 the Lunar Roving Vehicle traversed 35.74 km (22.2 mi) in 4 hours, 26 minutes of total driving time. The longest of the three traverses was 20.1 km (12.5 mi) and the LRV reached a maximum distance of 7.6 km (4.7 mi) from the Lunar Module.

Astronaut Gene Cernan reached 18 km/h (11.2 mph) on the lunar valley named Taurus-Littrow, setting an unofficial lunar land speed record which still stands to this day.

Lunokhod 2 (USSR) – 39 km (24.23 mi)

1973

Lunokhod 2 model
A Lunokhod 2 model from “Russia in Space” exhibition (Airport of Frankfurt, Germany, 2002). Image: Wikipedia

Soviet Union’s Luna 21 spacecraft landed on the Moon and deployed the second Soviet lunar rover, Lunokhod 2, in January 1973.

The rover stood 135 cm high and had a mass of 840 kg. It was about 170 cm long and 160 cm wide and had 8 wheels, each with an independent suspension, motor, and brake. The rover had two speeds, ~1 km/h and ~2 km/h.

Lunokhod 2 was equipped with three TV cameras, one mounted high on the rover for navigation, which could return high-resolution images at different rates (3.2, 5.7, 10.9 or 21.1 seconds per frame). These images were used by a five-man team of controllers on Earth who sent driving commands to the rover in real time.

Power was supplied by a solar panel on the inside of a round hinged lid which covered the instrument bay, which would charge the batteries when opened. A polonium-210 isotopic heat source was used to keep the rover warm during the lunar nights. There were 4 panoramic cameras mounted on the rover.

Scientific instruments included a soil mechanics tester, solar X-ray experiment, an astrophotometer to measure visible and UV light levels, a magnetometer deployed in front of the rover on the end of a 2.5 m boom, a radiometer, a photodetector (Rubin-1) for laser detection experiments, and a French-supplied laser corner-reflector. The lander and rover together weighed 1814 kg.

Lunokhod 2 operated for about 4 months, covered 37 km of terrain including hilly upland areas and rilles and sent back 86 panoramic images and over 80,000 TV pictures. Many mechanical tests of the surface, laser ranging measurements and other experiments were completed during this time.

On June 4 it was announced that the program was completed, leading to speculation that the vehicle probably failed in mid-May or could not be revived after the lunar night of May-June.

The Lunokhod laser retroreflector is still used by Earth-based stations for laser ranging, Lunokhod 2 is located at 25.8323 N, 30.9221 E.

Opportunity (NASA) – 45.16 km (28.06 mi)

2004-2018

Out-of-this-world driving distances. Opportunity Mars rover - artist conception
This artist conception portrays Opportunity on the surface of Mars. Image source: Wikipedia

As of February 2019, NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover holds the “out-of-this-world” driving distance record. On July 28, 2014, it was announced that Opportunity, having traversed over 40 km (25 mi), had become the rover achieving the longest off-world distance, surpassing the previous record of 39 km (24 mi) on the Moon by Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2.

On March 24, 2015, NASA celebrated Opportunity having traveled the distance of a marathon race, 42.195 kilometers (26.219 mi), from the start of Opportunity’s landing and traveling on Mars.

By June 10, 2018, when it last contacted NASA, the rover had traveled a distance of 45.16 kilometers (28.06 miles).

Opportunity was launched on July 7, 2003, 28 days after its twin, Spirit, which launched on June 10, 2003, as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover program. It landed in Meridiani Planum, a plain located 2 degrees south of Mars’s equator on January 25, 2004, three weeks after Spirit touched down on the other side of the planet. Both rovers had a planned 90-sol (Martian day) duration of activity (slightly more than 90 earth days).

Spirit functioned until getting stuck in 2009 and ceased communications in 2010, while Opportunity was able to stay operational for 5353 sols after landing.

By June 10, 2018, when it last contacted NASA and sent it last photo to Earth, which shows the intensity of the dust storm, Opportunity had exceeded its operating plan by 14 years, 295 days (in Earth Time), 55 times its designed lifespan.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

I am a software developer, an ex-road racing cyclist, and a science enthusiast. Also an animal lover! I write about the planet Earth and science on this website, ourplnt.com. You can check out my social media profiles by clicking on their icons.

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