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Mars rover reaches highest point in 7 years, snaps this panorama

The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity reaches another height as it celebrates its 11-year anniversary with a video and patriotic panoramic photo just released by NASA.

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A shot of the Endeavour Crater taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. (Click to enlarge.) NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

On Sunday, NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity will mark its 11-year anniversary on the Red Planet. To celebrate -- as only a Mars rover can -- it has used its Pancam (fancy name for its panoramic camera) to snap this wide view from atop "Cape Tribulation," a part of Endeavour Crater's rim that sits at a height of 440 feet. That's 80 percent of the height of the Washington Monument, NASA says.

The photo was taken on January 6 and released by NASA Thursday. The rover is now at the highest elevation it's been since leaving the Victoria Crater area in 2008.

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Opportunity's original mission on Mars was only to last three months, so the NASA folks feel pretty good about getting over 10 years more use out of the little beast. "During that prime mission and for more than a decade of bonus performance in extended missions, Opportunity has returned compelling evidence about wet environments on ancient Mars," NASA said in a statement about the anniversary.

If you look closely at the right side of the image, you'll see an American flag, which got in the shot after Opportunity purposefully held out its robotic arm. "The flag is printed on the aluminum cable guard of the rover's rock abrasion tool, which is used for grinding away weathered rock surfaces to expose fresh interior material for examination," NASA said.

The flag is meant as a tribute to the victims of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, as the aluminum on which it's printed came from the wreckage of the twin towers. "Workers at Honeybee Robotics in lower Manhattan, less than a mile from the World Trade Center, were making the rock abrasion tool for Opportunity and NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rover, Spirit, in September 2001," the space agency said.

Opportunity has traveled more than 25.8 miles since starting its career on Mars on January 25, 2004. Next, it will head south along Endeavor's rim to a location called "Marathon Valley" -- a spot where water-related minerals have been spied from orbit. "That site's informal name comes from the calculation that Opportunity will have completed a marathon-footrace's distance of driving (26.2 miles, or 42.2 kilometers) by the time the rover gets there," according to the Jet Propulsion Lab's (JPL) website.

The little rover that could is currently having a problem with its flash memory storage. NASA scientists have developed a workaround for the time being and are working on "a software remedy to restore its usability."