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NASA Mars Rovers Add Knowledge, Inspire Young Scientists

Published on 06 January 2014

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Washington, D.C.

Artist's Conception Portrays A NASA Mars Exploration Rover On The Surface Of Mars
Artist's Conception Portrays A NASA Mars Exploration Rover On The Surface Of Mars

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

“I wasn’t particularly interested in space at the time,” she recalled at the end of 2013 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “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 for missions planned to last for three months. Spirit reached Mars on January 4, 2004, and worked for six years. Opportunity landed on January 25, 2004, 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.”

Nobody in 2004 was predicting that either Spirit or Opportunity might still be roving Mars in summer 2013, which is when Sosland joined JPL.

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, NASA said.

Mike Seibert in late 2003 was eagerly tracking the run-up to the rover landings while 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.

The dramatic landings and overland expeditions of Spirit and Opportunity, NASA said, 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.

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, NASA said. Opportunity landed a short distance 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 toward other destinations: hills on the horizon for Spirit and craters exposing deeper layers for Opportunity. Spirit drove a total of 7.7 kilometers, some of that with one of its six wheels not rotating, NASA said. 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 38.7 kilometers and is still going.

One factor that has enabled Spirit and Opportunity to work for years instead of a few months, the space agency said, has been winds that occasionally remove some of the dust accumulating on solar panels that generate the rovers’ electricity. The ground crew also 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.

By driving to outcrops kilometers from their landing sites, both rovers reached evidence about multiple episodes of Martian history. Opportunity is currently exploring outcrops on the rim of Endeavour crater, which is 22 kilometers in diameter.

“Opportunity is still in excellent health for a vehicle of its age,” said JPL’s John Callas, project manager for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project. “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, New York, said, “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,” he said.

The evidence the rovers glean from rocks may not be the only benefit, though. Sosland and 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.”



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Posted 2014-01-06 16:28:00