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Meet the Mars Exploration Rovers

Meet the Mars Exploration Rovers

In 2004, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched (NASA) another rover mission to Mars. Coming off the successful first rover mission on Mars in 1997. NASA will be sending another rover mission 17 years later. And like always, this time the rover is going to be bigger and will have more advanced instrumentations. These rovers are NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers (MER). And their names are Spirit and Opportunity.

Meet the Mars Exploration Rovers

Images of MER Spirit and Opportunity. Photo Credit: NASA
Images of MER Spirit and Opportunity. Photo Credit: NASA

The Mars Exploration Rovers are the progenitor of the Mars Pathfinder. Building off on the lessons learned from the previous rover. Meaning that these new rovers are bigger and more capable. As such, Spirit and Opportunity are twice as long as Pathfinder. The new rovers have a length of 1.6 meters compared to Sojourners’ 63 centimeters of length. And weighing 174 kilograms, the new rovers are heavier than the 10-kilogram weight of the previous.

NASA personnel completing the assembly and testing of MER. Photo Credit: NASA
NASA personnel completed the assembly and testing of MER. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA held a student essay competition to determine the names of the rovers. There were nearly 10,000 entries in this competition. The results of the competition to the names Spirit and Opportunity for the rovers. And in tribute, NASA named the two landers after the two space shuttle tragedies. Thus, They christened Spirit’s lander Columbia Memorial Station and Opportunity’s lander Challenger Memorial Station.

Choosing Landing Sites

Delta II "heavy" rocket sending MER Opportunity to Mars. Photo Credit: NASA
Delta II “heavy” rocket sending MER Opportunity to Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA launched Spirit on the 10th of June 2003. And three weeks later, they launched Opportunity on the 7th of July. At this point, scientists and engineers have given the coordinates for their specific landings site. Firstly, Spirit was going to land on Gusev Crater. This location was possibly a former lake in a giant impact crater. The second landing site is Meridiani Planum. From observations, experts theorized that the site may have mineral deposits that support the possible the area had water once. These two sites are important for the study of Mars. Because it can uncover more detail about the wet past of the planet.

Image of the Spirit's landing site at Gusev Crater and Opportunity's Meridiani. Photo Credit: NASA
Image of the Spirit’s landing site at Gusev Crater and Opportunity’s Meridiani. Photo Credit: NASA

Entry, Descent, and Landing

Illustration of MER's flight system. Photo Credit: NASA
Illustration of MER’s flight system. Photo Credit: NASA

By the 4th of January 2004, Spirit started its entry into the Martian atmosphere. And on the 25th of January, Opportunity was descending to the surface. The entry, descent, and landing method of both rovers are based on the proven technologies of Viking and Pathfinder. The sequence of events during the landing is similar to Sojourner. Both rovers will use parachutes, deceleration rockets, and airbags to land. But this time, NASA employed technologies like cameras and new rockets to increase the accuracy of their landings.

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Illustration of MER's entry, descent, and landing. Photo Credit: NASA
Illustration of MER’s entry, descent, and landing. Photo Credit: NASA

New instruments.

Because of the larger size of the rovers, more instruments are built-in and have better moving capabilities. Because of this, the rovers are mobile geological laboratories. And to better understand this, here are some of the new instruments that Spirit and Opportunity have.

Illustration of the Mars Exploration Rover. Photo Credit: NASA
Illustration of the Mars Exploration Rover. Photo Credit: NASA
  1. Unlike Sojourner, they installed a Panoramic Camera on the rovers for better viewing of the surrounding terrain.
  2. In addition, NASA equipped the new rovers with a Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer. This is to study the heat emanating from the surface.
  3. Next, engineers placed a Moessbauer Spectrometer on the rover’s arms. The instrument is to determine the abundance of iron-bearing minerals in the area.
  4. And like Pathfinder, they built the rovers with a new version of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer. This is to measure the elements within rockets.
  5. Also, NASA gave the rovers a Microscopic Imager. Engineered to study the fine-scale appearance of rocks and soils.
  6. Lastly, scientists gave the rovers other supplemental instruments to the rovers to study the planet more efficiently.

Results.

Image of Opportunity studying a light-toned rock target called "Athens". Photo Credit: NASA
Image of Opportunity studying a light-toned rock target called “Athens”. Photo Credit: NASA

Both rovers surpassed their originally planned 90-day mission. NASA recorded that the Spirit lasted 20 times longer than expected. Spirit sent its final transmission on the 22nd of March 2010. On the other hand, Opportunity ends its mission on the 13th of February 2019. As such, the rover worked on Mars for nearly 15 years. And this made Opportunity has the longest extraterrestrial travel record at 45.16 kilometers.

Artist illustration of manned exploration on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA
Artist illustration of manned exploration on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

The result of their exploration showed us that Mars once had a warmer, wetter, and more active environment. Data collected supports the preposition that Mars could have sustained microbial life. Furthermore, the knowledge gained from this mission advances the prospect of human exploration of Mars. This comes as NASA is now more aware of the dangers and hazards posed by the planet.

Spirit and Opportunity’s successes set the stage for the next evolution. By 2011, NASA will be launching their new sibling to Mars.

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