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Mars Trek: TV show dramatizes rovers' five years on the red planet

"They are the closest I think that you can come to what it would be like standing there," says Dr. Squyres. (National Geographic)
October 31, 2008

Mars, the red planet, these are the journeys of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, their five year missions to explore strange new surfaces, to seek out new water and new signs of life, to boldly roll where no rovers have gone before.

NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers' trek across the fourth planet from the Sun is the focus of "Five Years on Mars," a new one-hour special airing on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, November 2. The show, which uses photo-realistic animation based on the rovers' own photos to dramatize their trials and tribulations, features several of the twins' drivers, as well as their principal investigator Dr. Steven Squyres.

"Astonishingly accurate," Squyres said of the program's recreations of the Martian surface. "The guy who did that was a guy named Dan Maas, who I've known ten years now and has been working on this stuff forever. He is just a real stickler for detail, so both depictions of the Martian terrain and depictions of the rovers are as accurate as I think anyone can possibly make them."

"They are the closest I think that you can come to what it would be like standing there, looking at it on the Martian surface," continued Squyres. "Dan's animations as they were produced for ["Five Years on Mars"] are just lovingly created over months and months of work and we don't have that luxury, so what we use to operate the rovers is not nearly as good as what you see in the show."

Click to enlarge video in a new window. (National Geographic)

Exploring opposite sides of Mars since January 2004, the two golf-cart size rovers' adventures unfold during "Five Years" in soap opera fashion, as the focus is alternated between the "lucky" Opportunity and the not so fortunate Spirit.

"That was certainly the way it was at first," Squyres told collectSPACE in an interview, "Opportunity was definitely the lucky one, with all the sexy evidence of water and everything layed out right in front, literally seven meters in front of the rover when we landed."

As the program shows, Opportunity's landing in a shallow crater in Meridiani Planum gave Squyres and his team a first look at a rock outcropping on Mars, which in turn led to the discovery of "blueberries," small hematite spheres that provided the direct evidence of past water. From that point forward, Opportunity's luck just grew. From the wind gusts that cleaned its solar panels to its mostly smooth transit across the Martian dunes (less a particularly trying sand trap), Opportunity's eight miles on Mars have proved its name to be appropriate.

If Opportunity was taking full advantage of its opportunity for discovery, Spirit's landing left Squyres' spirit decidedly down.

"Spirit got lucky too, but much later," he admitted. In the show, Squyres goes on to say that while he was reluctant to say it at the time, Spirit's landing site was a "crushing disappointment".

Touching down two weeks before its twin, Spirit landed in Gusev crater, which was believed to be the site of a past lake. Instead of finding evidence of water however, Spirit found only volcanic rock. Making the best of the situation Squyres directed the rover team to drive to the nearby but yet more distant than anyone had planned Columbia Hills. Spirit, as Squyres acknowledged, ultimately did get lucky but only after losing use of one of its wheels, which led to it scraping away the Martian soil to discover silica, a clue towards the existence of microbial life.

Click to enlarge video in a new window. (National Geographic)

Whether faced with good or bad luck, the rovers' teams at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory became attached to 'their' rover, rooting for its success, though not Squyres.

"I am deeply attached to both of these things. They have both done magnificently. It's like I have kids and it's like asking which of my two kids I love better," he said. "They are different, but I love them both."

Their differences are played up in "Five Years".

"They had somewhat different personalities, even back when we built them," described Squyres. "Spirit was the first one that was built and it was sort of the problem child. As we were testing them, Spirit was the one that hit every test first and the first time you do something, it tends to not work. So we had a lot of test failures with Spirit even before we launched. With Opportunity, things seemed to go better."

"Since we arrived at Mars, their personalities seem to have diverged even further. They landed at two very different sites. We used them in two very different ways. They are very versatile machines and there are a lot of different ways in which you can use them. We treat them quite differently at the two sites," continued Squyres.

"Now they have started to wear out. Pieces have started to break and of course the same piece doesn't break on the same rovers. Something will go wrong on one rover, some different part would go on the other rover, and they get more and more different. So today they are just two utterly different vehicles."

What Spirit and Opportunity have shared have been lives longer than anyone expected.

"No one expected it to go this long," Squyres stated. "I thought we were going to get five or six months. I didn't think the wheels were going to fall off when the sun came up on the 91st day, right, [but] 90 days was the design requirement. We built margin into them to last beyond 90 days and I thought we were going to get six months."

"But never, none of us, never thought they were going to get five years and anybody who says they did is lying."

"But never, none of us, never thought they were going to get five years," says Dr. Squyres. (National Geographic)

Their extended longivity, said Squyres, can be attributed to three factors.

"One is that we built good hardware and we're proud of that. I will make no apologies for that, we built the best hardware we could and its held together pretty well."

"We have gotten lucky with the weather," he continued. "On several occassions, we have gotten these lucky wind gusts that have cleaned off the solar panels."

"Then the other thing that we never really counted on being able to have such massive topography that we could drive these things onto steep slopes. We designed them for flat terrain and we landed them on flat terrain. They have lasted so long and driven so far, they've been able to drive to mountains and craters and taken us to where you could tilt solar arrays toward the Sun to sneak your way through a Martian winter as we have done now three times."

But Squyres doesn't lament the additional time on Mars.

"If it ever gets to the point where the excitment wears off of driving around on Mars, you shouldn't be doing it. No, every day is different. I'm still amazed we get to do what we do."

"This whole thing has been an adventure that has unfolded in very slow motion. If you or I went to Mars and did what these rovers did, we could do it in a week. What they have done over five years, you and I could each do in a week, but it would be a heck of a week!"

"And if you take that five year adventure and distill it down into a one-hour depiction, as they have done in this show, it makes for a pretty compelling story."

"Five Years on Mars" debuts on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

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