Humanity has always been fascinated with the vast expanse known as space. Celestial bodies have ignited the imagination of the human race as long as civilization has existed. Many have come before with dreams of understanding fully the greatness that is beyond our atmosphere, but that was not remotely possible until the technological advances of the last fifty years. We have launched shuttles, men, missiles, telescopes, satellites, and monkeys into the vacuum and the more we explore, the smaller and smaller we find that we are. Currently, one of the main missions of NASA is to better understand our red neighbor, Mars.
The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Mission is an ongoing robotic exploration of the surface of Mars. The project began with an initial 820 million dollar, 90 day jaunt onto the surface of the red planet in 2003. The mission has since been extended five times. The two rovers are named Opportunity and Spirit with Spirit being the longest operating rover by 21 days. Although there have been two scares for Spirit, initially there was an issue with the rover’s flash memory drive in early 2004 and later the rover’s right front tire ceased to work due to lack of solar power, the overall mission has been relatively smooth when considering the possible issues that could arise from being on a distant planet with only remote tech support available.
Surface of Mars as shown by Spirit
The basic premise of the mission was to drop two rovers onto the surface of Mars in order to explore and catalogue the surface especially concentrating on the possible history of water on Mars. The rovers are equipped with special equipment to aid them in their mission. First, there is the panoramic camera (Pancam) which is used to determine the mineralogy, texture, and structure of the local terrain. The miniature thermal emission spectrometer (Mini-TES) is used to identify promising rocks and soils for closer examination and for determining processes that formed the Martian rocks. In addition to that, Mini-TES analyzes the Martian sky to profile the atmosphere. The Mossbauer spectrometer (MB) is used for close, detailed examination of iron bearing rocks and soils while the alpha particle x-ray spectrometer is used for detailed analyses of the other soil types that are gathered via magnets on the crafts. If the team deems that further analysis of the selected soil samples are necessary, they have a microscopic imager (MI) for obtaining close up high resolution images. Each craft is also outfitted with a rock abrasion tool (RAT) for removing dusty weathered rock surfaces and exposing fresh material for analysis.
Initially the goal for each rover was to drive 40 meters per day for a total nearing one kilometer by the end of the initial 90 day window. Scientists did not expect the rovers to be able to survive any longer in the forbidding environment, but the rovers have greatly exceeded their expected life span. As of Sol, which is a day on Mars, 2028 Spirit has traversed 4.8 miles with Opportunity racking up 10.85 miles on the surface! On March 23, 2004, NASA held a press conference to announce that they had found possible indications of past liquid on the Martian surface when the rover relayed pictures and data revealing a stratified pattern and cross bedding in the rocky outcrop inside the crater Meridiani Planum around Opportunity’s landing site.
“Hollywood Style” picture of Opportunity looking over a cliff
Perhaps we may never know the exact history of Mars or any of the other planets in our solar system, one thing is certain as technology continues to advance and our capabilities to explore distant space continually expand, we may one day see the dream of many come to pass. To be able to travel deeper into space and to understand the vastness that surrounds our tiny neighborhood in the cosmos.