Mars Rovers Launched and Details on Their
for the exploration of the planet Mars and the expansion of human knowledge:
Both of the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) are now on their way to the Red
Planet, carrying a suite of scientific instruments designed and built under the
guidance of Cornell University.
"The launch [of the rovers] was the second most difficult
part of this mission," said Jonathan Joseph, the main programmer at Cornell
overseeing the software designed to analyze the images of the Red Planet's
surface from the panoramic camera, or Pancam. "The most difficult part [of the
mission] will be the landings on Mars."
On June 8, the two "robot field geologists," as the Athena science package team
has referred to the Mars rovers, were officially named Spirit and Opportunity -
names submitted by contest-winner Sofi Collis, 9, of Scottsdale, Arizona. Her
name submissions were selected from over 10,000 others in a contest sponsored by
The Planetary Society and LEGO.
Two days after the naming, on June 10, following a number of weather and
technical delays, the newly named rover Spirit climbed into the skies above Cape
Canaveral, Florida, aboard a Delta 2 rocket.
Spirit's sister rover, Opportunity, originally set for launch on June 25, found
itself remaining on Earth while summer storms and problems with the new Delta 2
Heavy booster left everyone wondering if the rover would be on its way to Mars
before the celestial deadline of July 15. After that, Opportunity would have had
to wait two years until Earth and the Red Planet aligned properly in their solar
orbits again to allow a launch.
Everything was resolved with time to spare and Opportunity joined its twin rover
in the heavens on the evening of July 7.
During the rovers' seven-month cruise through interplanetary space, the Pancam
will be tested twice in space. Though there is little to see in the unlit
confines of their protective shells, Athena team members will take images with
the digital camera to get back "dark current", as Joseph called it, to calibrate
the instrument and remove any "bad" pixels before the rovers arrive at Mars in
January of 2004.
The primary scientific goal of MER is to find evidence that liquid water once
flowed across the surface of the Red Planet. While the rovers are not
specifically designed to look for actual Martian organisms, either fossilized or
alive, discovering traces of past water activity from the clues in the native
rocks and soil will strongly support the possibility that life once evolved on
the Red Planet and, by consequence, on other worlds beyond Earth.
After long and extensive studies of thousand of images of the
Martian surface taken by the currently orbiting Mars Global Surveyor and Mars
Odyssey probes, mission scientists chose two locations that seemed both
scientifically promising and reasonably safe for landing the precious rovers.
Spirit is aimed for Gusev Crater, a 95-mile-wide feature just south of the Red
Planet's equator. The fascinating aspect of Gusev is the long valley named
Ma'adim Vallis (Ma'adim is the Hebrew word for Mars) that connects with the
crater. Scientists believe this valley was carved out by running water which may
have flowed into Gusev, turning the impact basin into a lakebed. There may be
sediments preserved at the bottom of the crater that can tell scientists the
history of this region.
Opportunity will arrive at Mars three weeks after Spirit and land more than
6,000 miles from its robot twin on the other side of the planet, at a place
called Meridiani Planum. One of the flattest and smoothest places on this alien
world, Meridiani Planum also has an abundance of an iron oxide mineral called
gray hematite. On Earth this hematite is usually found in association with
liquid water. Scientists will use Opportunity to see if this holds true for
Athena team members will not be idle while the Mars rovers spend over half a
year in space heading to their destination. The engineers, researchers, and
scientists will be continually testing and retesting the software and hardware
of the rovers, both the ones in space and several realistic models on Earth.
They will also be practicing how to handle their automated geologists on the
mysterious Martian surface.
Once the rovers are on Mars, their time to conduct science and return the
valuable data to their creators will be limited by how the long the robots can
be kept functioning. Even if the machines are not rendered useless by some
unforeseen accident, dust from the planet's atmosphere will settle and
accumulate on the rovers' solar panels. Eventually the probes will be cut off
from their primary power source, the Sun.
When Spirit and Opportunity arrive next January, they will not be alone. The
European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan have sent their own emissaries to the Red
Planet. This will be the largest group of spacecraft heading to Mars at one time
since the early 1970s.
The European contribution, launched from Russia on June 2, is a combined orbiter
and lander mission. When Mars Express begins circling the Red Planet this
December, it will release a probe named Beagle 2 that will touch down on Isidis
Planitia on Christmas Day. While the orbiter uses radar to scan for underground
water, the lander will conduct the first direct search for life on Mars since
Viking in 1976.
Japan's first Mars probe, named Nozomi (meaning Hope), is scheduled to go into
Mars orbit around the time the rovers reach the planet, where it will study the
upper atmosphere of the fourth planet from the Sun.
For more information on MER and the Athena science package, visit
The Ithaca Times - August 20, 2003