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  Spirit and Opportunity rovers: Ten years on Mars

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Author Topic:   Spirit and Opportunity rovers: Ten years on Mars
Robert Pearlman
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Posts: 28653
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 01-03-2014 10:20 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The Planetary Society release
10 years on Mars... Let's Celebrate!

Ten years ago today, the first of our two Mars Exploration Rovers landed on the Red Planet...

So let's party!

Join us at planetary.org/roverparty for rover related videos, games, trivia, and information about what Spirit did and what Opportunity continues to do on Mars.

You can also send a personal message to the scientists and engineers responsible for these remarkable roving robots. We'll be collecting messages throughout January, so there's plenty of time to get your friends and family to send messages, too.

Thanks to these rovers, we've all been exploring Mars for a decade. We hope you take a moment to celebrate, look back, and dream about what's next.

Robert Pearlman
Editor

Posts: 28653
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 01-24-2014 07:09 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA/JPL release (Jan. 3, 2014)
Decade-Old Rover Adventure Continues on Mars and Earth

Eighth graders didn't have Facebook or Twitter to share news back then, in January 2004. Bekah Sosland, 14 at the time, learned about a NASA rover landing on Mars when the bouncing-ball video on the next morning's Channel One news in her Fredericksburg, Texas, classroom caught her eye.

"I wasn't particularly interested in space at the time," she recalled last week inside the spacecraft operations facility where she now works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "I remember I was talking with friends, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed this thing bouncing and rolling on a red surface. I watched as it stopped and opened up, and it had this rover inside."

That animation portrayed how NASA landed the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity three weeks apart, using airbags to cushion the impact at the start of the missions, planned to last for three months. Spirit reached Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, Universal Time (Jan. 3, PST) and worked for six years. Opportunity landed on Jan. 25, UT (Jan. 24, PST) and is still exploring, with Sosland now on the team planning what it does each day.

"I watched that news and said, 'This is amazing: a rover on another planet!' Gears started turning in my head that day about engineering and space -- thinking about a career. It was definitely a milestone in my life and something I'll always remember."

On her path to that career, high-school teacher Brett Williams in Fredericksburg inspired her to build real rockets, and she completed a 2013 engineering degree from the University of Texas, Austin. But nobody in 2004 was predicting that either Spirit or Opportunity might still be roving Mars in summer 2013, which is when Sosland joined JPL.

"I certainly never thought I'd have an opportunity to work on Opportunity," she said. "That only became possible because this mission has been going so incredibly long. The reason Opportunity has worked so long is the people who built it and operate it. I'm loving that I can be a part of this team now."

Most of the engineers who operated Spirit and Opportunity during the three-month prime missions in 2004 have switched to other projects, including later Mars spacecraft. Sosland is among several on Opportunity's team today who were in school a decade ago.

Unlike her, Mike Seibert in late 2003 was eagerly tracking the run-up to the rover landings, while he was an engineering undergraduate at the University of Colorado. He had even ordered cardboard 3-D glasses in anticipation of images from stereo cameras on Spirit and Opportunity.

"I was living in my fraternity's house in Boulder that January. People thought I was weird, wearing 3-D glasses and looking at those pictures from Mars," said Seibert.

Less than two years later, he was working on the rover team at JPL. He has, since then, served as a mission manager and in other roles for both Spirit and Opportunity and participated in many key moments of the extended missions.

The dramatic landings and overland expeditions of Spirit and Opportunity have also inspired countless students who have not gained a chance to work on the rover team, but have participated in the adventure online by exploring images from the rovers or other activities.

What an adventure it's been. Though Spirit and Opportunity were built as nearly identical twins, and both succeeded in the main goal of finding evidence for ancient watery environments on Mars, their stories diverged early.

Spirit was sent to a crater where the basin's shape and apparent inflow channels seen from orbit suggested a lake once existed. Opportunity's landing area, almost exactly halfway around the planet, was selected mainly on the basis of a water-clue mineral detected from orbit, rather than landform shapes. Spirit's destination did not pan out initially. The crater may have held a lake, but if there are any lakebed sediments, they are thoroughly buried under later volcanic deposits. Opportunity, the luckier twin, landed a stone's throw from an exposure of layered rock that within weeks yielded compositional and textural evidence of a water-rich ancient environment.

Within the initial three-month missions and without expectation of surviving a full year, each rover set out cross-country toward other destinations: hills on the horizon for Spirit and craters exposing deeper layers for Opportunity. Spirit drove a total of 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers), some of that with one of its six wheels not rotating. Loss of use of a second wheel while the rover was in a sand trap contributed to the 2010 end of that mission. Opportunity has driven 24 miles (38.7 kilometers) and is still going strong.

One key to Spirit and Opportunity working for years, instead of a few months, has been winds that occasionally remove some of the dust accumulating on solar panels that generate the rovers' electricity. Also, the ground crew became adept at managing each rover's power consumption and taking advantage of slopes for favorably tilting the rovers toward the sun during Martian winters.

"Ultimately, it's not only how long the rovers work or how far they drive that's most important, but how much exploration and scientific discovery these missions have accomplished," said JPL's John Callas, project manager for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project, who has worked on the Spirit and Opportunity missions for more than 13 years.

By driving to outcrops miles from their landing sites, both rovers reached evidence about multiple episodes of Martian history, "traveling across time as well as across Martian terrain," he said. Opportunity is currently exploring outcrops on the rim of Endeavour Crater, which is 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter.

"Opportunity is still in excellent health for a vehicle of its age," Callas said. "The biggest science may still be ahead of us, even after 10 years of exploration."

The science achievements have already provided major advances in understanding of Mars.

The rovers' principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., described some of the key findings, starting with what Spirit found after driving from the crater floor where it landed into hills to the east:

"In the Columbia Hills, we discovered compelling evidence of an ancient Mars that was a hot, wet, violent place, with volcanic explosions, hydrothermal activity, steam vents -- nothing like Mars today.

"At Opportunity's landing site, we found evidence of an early Mars that had acidic groundwater that sometimes reached the surface and evaporated away, leaving salts behind. It was an environment with liquid water, but very different from the environment that Spirit told us about.

"When Opportunity got to the rim of Endeavour Crater, we began a whole new mission. We found gypsum veins and a rich concentration of clay minerals. The clay minerals tell us about water chemistry that was neutral, instead of acidic -- more favorable for microbial life, if any ever began on Mars."

"Because of the rovers' longevity, we essentially got four different landing sites for the price of two."

The evidence the rovers glean from rocks at these sites may not be the only huge benefit of the adventures, though. Bekah Sosland and Mike Seibert may be examples of something even greater.

Squyres said, "I'm incredibly proud of the science we've done on this mission, but in the end, perhaps our most important legacy will turn out to be the young people who have seen what we've done and made career choices based on that. If an outcome of our mission is to help inspire a new generation of explorers to do even better than we did, that will be the greatest thing we could have accomplished."

The Mars Exploration Rover Project is one strong element in a robust program of NASA's ongoing and future Mars missions preparing for human missions there by the 2030s.

Robert Pearlman
Editor

Posts: 28653
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 01-24-2014 07:10 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA/JPL release
NASA's Opportunity at 10: New Findings from Old Rover

New findings from rock samples collected and examined by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity have confirmed an ancient wet environment that was milder and older than the acidic and oxidizing conditions told by rocks the rover examined previously.

In the Jan. 24 edition of the journal Science, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, writes in detail about the discoveries made by the rover and how these discoveries have shaped our knowledge of the planet. According to Arvidson and others on the team, the latest evidence from Opportunity is landmark.

"These rocks are older than any we examined earlier in the mission, and they reveal more favorable conditions for microbial life than any evidence previously examined by investigations with Opportunity," said Arvidson.

While the Opportunity team celebrates the rover's 10th anniversary on Mars, they also look forward to what discoveries lie ahead and how a better understanding of Mars will help advance plans for human missions to the planet in the 2030s.

Opportunity's original mission was to last only three months. On the day of its 10th anniversary on the Red Planet, Opportunity is examining the rim of the Endeavour Crater. It has driven 24 miles (38.7 kilometers) from where it landed on Jan. 24, 2004. The site is about halfway around the planet from NASA's latest Mars rover, Curiosity.

To find rocks for examination, the rover team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., steered Opportunity in a loop, scanning the ground for promising rocks in an area of Endeavour's rim called Matijevic Hill. The search was guided by a mineral-mapping instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which did not arrive at Mars until 2006, long after Opportunity's mission was expected to end.

Beginning in 2010, the mapping instrument, called the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, detected evidence on Matijevic Hill of a clay mineral known as iron-rich smectite. The Opportunity team set a goal to examine this mineral in its natural context -- where it is found, how it is situated with respect to other minerals and the area's geological layers -- a valuable method for gathering more information about this ancient environment. Researchers believe the wet conditions that produced the iron-rich smectite preceded the formation of the Endeavor Crater about 4 billion years ago.

"The more we explore Mars, the more interesting it becomes. These latest findings present yet another kind of gift that just happens to coincide with Opportunity's 10th anniversary on Mars," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "We're finding more places where Mars reveals a warmer and wetter planet in its history. This gives us greater incentive to continue seeking evidence of past life on Mars."

Opportunity has not experienced much change in health in the past year, and the vehicle remains a capable research partner for the team of scientists and engineers who plot each day's activities to be carried out on Mars.

"We're looking at the legacy of Opportunity's first decade this week, but there's more good stuff ahead," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., the mission's principal investigator. "We are examining a rock right in front of the rover that is unlike anything we've seen before. Mars keeps surprising us, just like in the very first week of the mission."

JPL manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Opportunity's twin, Spirit, which worked for six years, and their successor, Curiosity, also contributed valuable information about the diverse watery environments of ancient Mars, from hot springs to flowing streams. NASA's Mars orbiters Odyssey and MRO study the whole planet and assist the rovers.

"Over the past decade, Mars rovers have made the Red Planet our workplace, our neighborhood," said John Callas, manager of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project, which built and operates Opportunity. "The longevity and the distances driven are remarkable. But even more important are the discoveries that are made and the generation that has been inspired."

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