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Scientists Celebrate NASA's 10-Year Presence On Mars

Published on 25 January 2014

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Washington, D.C.

Opportunity’s Travels From Its Landing Site
Opportunity’s Travels From Its Landing Site

Ten years ago, the U.S. space agency landed a golf-cart-size vehicle on Mars. Since then, the rover Opportunity has returned more than 190,000 images. Scientists engaged in the Mars Exploration Program have been studying those images as if they’re going to work on Mars every day.

“In addition to being earthlings, because of these rovers, we have become Martians too — dual citizens if you will,” said John Callas, Mars Exploration Rovers project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) , headquartered at the California Institute of Technology. “We now live in a larger world — a world that extends beyond our own home planet.”

Callas spoke at a January 23 JPL briefing about the achievements of the two rovers that have given planetary scientists a daily presence on Mars since January 24, 2004.

The twin rover Spirit ceased communication in 2010, but Opportunity continues to function and return productive scientific information. Opportunity has travelled more than 38 kilometers through the years, though the vehicle was designed to travel only 1 kilometer on a 90-day mission.

At the JPL briefing, the rover scientists attributed the longevity of the craft to its solid design, the ingenuity of engineers who solve problems in the face of every mishap and the Martian wind. Designers expected planetary dust to cover the solar panels that power the craft, impeding the machine’s ability to generate power. Instead, the Martian wind — unpredictably but consistently — blows the dust off the panels, allowing adequate generation of power to keep the craft running through the oncoming Mars winter.

“We have an exciting period of discoveries ahead of us,” said Steve Squyres, the mission’s principal investigator and a planetary scientist from Cornell University. “Maybe some of the best science [is] yet to come.”

A new type of rock has appeared in front of an onboard camera, the mission team recently announced, and its composition appears to be unlike anything seen or studied by the rovers’ scientific instruments in the past. Likely kicked up as a rover wheel turned sharply, the round, red-centered rock doesn’t appear to have been exposed to the Martian atmosphere, Squyres suggests, so it may reveal new information about the subsurface.

The team is still working to understand the specimen and what its manganese-magnesium composition may reveal about the evolution of the red planet.

“It’s these kinds of unexpected discoveries that make this mission be the exciting, fun thing that it is,” Squyres said, participating in the bicoastal briefing from NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Maryland.

In recent months, Opportunity has been studying some of the oldest Martian rocks detected since the beginning of the mission. In scientific findings being published January 24, Opportunity mission investigator Ray Arvidson says the older rocks could have formed only in an ancient mild, wet environment.

“The older you look, the better it gets in terms of habitability at this location,” said Arvidson, a scientist at Washington University in Missouri and a leader of NASA’s planetary science program. More than any other seen so far, these rock specimens reveal conditions that might have supported microbial life at one time.

Arvidson suggests that water on this site in an earlier era may have been pure enough for drinking. The rocks will be the subject of future study and could reveal further information to explain how a once warm, wet planet became a dry, barren one. The planetary scientists are hoping that future rock examination will reveal traces of a past atmosphere and offer further evidence about Mars’ evolution.

Opportunity and Spirit helped lay the groundwork for the 2012 landing of their bigger, smarter successor, the Curiosity rover. Together the rovers have laid the foundation for a planetary exploration program that looks toward future missions with the capabilities to record biosignatures left by ancient microbial life forms and retrieve samples for a return to Earth.

For the longer term, NASA aims toward a mission that will carry a human crew to Mars. President Obama's space policy projects that journey might be undertaken by the mid 2030s.

NASA launched the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission in November 2013. The unmanned craft is set to reach Mars by September to carry out scientific study of the planet’s atmosphere and how it may have changed over time.


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Posted 2014-01-25 13:10:00