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Mars exploration rovers

The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. 5th ed. 2014.
COPYRIGHT 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning
Updated: Aug. 30, 2017

Full Text:
The exploration of Mars using robotic spacecraft began in the 1960s, when the US National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s
(NASA’s) Mariner 4 flew past the planet and beamed back 21 fuzzy television pictures. In 1971, NASA’s Mariner 9 became the first
spacecraft to orbit Mars. In 1976, NASA’s twin Viking landers touched down on different parts of the planet. Although the landers
could not roam, they beamed back thousands of high-quality photographs, collected data on weather and chemistry, and performed
sophisticated experiments on Martian soil to look for life.

Several attempts were made by the Soviet Union (and later the Russian Federation) to send landers to Mars, but all failed. (The
Soviet Union’s Mars 3 lander made a successful landing on the Martian surface but lost communication with Earth 14.5 seconds
later.) In 1997, the U.S. scored a third Mars lander success with its Pathfinder probe, which proved that a spacecraft could safely land
on another world by bouncing inside a cluster of inflated airbags. Pathfinder released a tiny solar-powered rover called Sojourner that
roamed near the lander. In its 83 days of operation on the surface, Sojourner traveled about 109 yd (100 m), took hundreds of
photographs, and conducted chemical analysis on 16 locations.

Several other NASA attempts at landing on Mars failed. NASA’s Mars Polar lander crashed in 1999, its Deep Space 2 surface
penetrators returned no data when they impacted Mars in the same year, and the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Beagle 2
lander failed in 2003. Then, in 2003, NASA score a spectacular success: the large, sophisticated Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and
Opportunity, identical twins, successfully rolled out on the surface of Mars. It was the beginning of a mission that would continue for
both rovers until far beyond engineer’s initial expectations of a 92.5 day missions. On March 22, 2010, Spiritbecame trapped in deep
sand and transmitted its last communication took place. In May 2011, NASA officially ended the Spirit rover mission and transitioned
single-rover operations supporting the Opportunity rover. In August 2013, Opportunity surpassed 3,500 days of operation on the
Martian surface.

The Rovers
Both Opportunity and Spirit are about the size of a golf cart and consist of an instrument-packed chassis riding on six metal wheels.
Each wheel has its own motor and can be steered and powered independently of all the rest. The top of each rover folds out flat to
expose the solar panels that power the rover. A Pancam Mast Assembly rises out of the top of the rover, bearing several cameras at
a height of 5 feet (a little less than 2 m). At the front of each rover, mounted on the end of a jointed robotic arm called the Instrument
Deployment Device (IDD), is a circular grinding tool for polishing rocks to reveal their inner structure. The IDD also bears a
Mössbauer spectrometer for determining what minerals are present in rocks, an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer for analyzing which
elements are present in rocks, magnets for gathering iron-bearing dust, and a close-up camera called the microscopic imager. High-
and low-gain antennas provide radio communications directly with Earth or with satellites orbiting Mars. In November 2006
communications were established between the rovers and NASA’s recently-arrived Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which greatly
sped up data return to Earth.

The rovers were not equipped with experiments designed to detect life.

The Mission
The rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity as a result of a school essay contest won by a third-grade girl, were launched from Cape
Kennedy, Florida in June and July, 2003. Both landed on Mars in January 2004, on opposite sides of the planet. Borrowing
technology pioneered by both the Viking missions of the 1970s and the Pathfinder mission of the 1990s, they first slowed themselves
by riding large, saucer-shaped aeroshells into the upper Martian atmosphere. Friction with the atmosphere heated the aeroshells to a
white glow and slowed the spacecraft down. Next, each lander deployed a parachute. Rockets stopped the final descent at a height
of about 30 feet (10 m) above the surface, and the lander was released, packaged inside a roughly tetrahedral group of four airbags.
(A tetrahedron is a pyramid with four sides shaped like equilateral triangles.) The spacecraft was still moving sideways as the airbag-
protected landers were dropped, so each lander rolled and bounced for many yards over boulders and sand before coming to rest.

Next, each lander deflated its airbags and reeled them in to keep them from being an obstacle in the nearby landscape. The lander
now consisted of a tetrahedral shell with the rover folded up inside. Three sides of the lander unfolded like petals of a flower, forcing
the lander to roll, if necessary, so that the side with the rover clamped to it would be right side up on the ground. The rover was then
commanded to unfold its camera mast, solar panels, and suspension system. Firing small explosive bolts cut cables holding the rover
in place, and it was free to roll down one of the petals and onto the Martian surface. Both rovers completed all these steps

A scare occurred when the Spirit rover lost contact with Earth a few days after rolling off its lander. There were fears that the mission
would be lost, but engineers discovered a software problem with the rovers’ flash memory management system. An upgrade was
uploaded to both rovers and the failure did not recur.

Mission Results
During its vastly extended operational lifetime, the Spirit rover covered 4.8 miles (7.73 km) of the Martian surface, returning more than
124,000 images while conducting tests with its spectrometers and a microscopic imaging equipment. Spirit also climbed (and
descended) a hill and Opportunity traversed several miles of open desert to arrive at the edge of a large crater named Endurance. As
of September 2013, Opportunity had travelled approximately 24 mi (38.6 km) on its mission. Both rovers returned thousands of high-
resolution images in color, black-and-white, and stereo and examined scores of rocks in detail. They have photographed Martian dust
devils (small, tornado like air swirls picking dust up from the surface) and collected meteorological data. Geological data from both
rovers had established firmly that Mars once, billions of years ago, went through a warm, wet period of its history. The duration of that
warm, wet period, and whether it could possibly have allowed life to evolve, are still being debated by scientists.

Bell, Jim. Mars 3-D: A Rover’s Eye View of the Red Planet . New York: Sterling, 2008.

Rapp, Donald. Human Missions to Mars: Enabling Technologies for Exploring the Red Planet. Berlin: Springer, 2008.

National Geographic Society. “Exploring Mars.”
video.html (accessed August 16, 2017).

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “Mars Exploration Rovers.” Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California
Institute of Technology. (accessed August 16, 2017).

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “ Mars Pathfinder.” pages/mars-
pathfinder/index.html (accessed August 16, 2017).

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.” Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California
Institute of Technology. (accessed August 16, 2017).

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “Spirit and Opportunity.” (accessed August 16, 2017).

Source Citation (MLA 8th Edition)

Gilman, Larry. "Mars exploration rovers." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science, edited by K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner,
5th ed., Gale, 2014. Science In Context, Accessed 2 Apr. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CV2644041408