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Breaking News

additional news to be found at bottom

Note: I am working on compressing the news section into a section about each rover’s scientific findings.

**January 26, 2004 - It is now thought that Spirit's problem lies in the file management software that communicates with the flash memeory.

January 25, 2004 - 12:05am Opportunity touches down in Meridiani Planum! A strong signal is recieved - and all systems seem nominal. (first pictures - http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/all/opportunity.html)

January 25, 2004 - Sprit is not doing well. The problem lies in its flash memory**. Specifically in how the hardware and software communicate. Scientists will have to rely on the rover's other memory syetems.

January 23, 2004 - Sprit sends a garbled signal back in the early morning. Scientists are still not sure what the problem is.

January 21, 2004 - Spirit has failed to send back its last batch of data. Scientists are unsure why.

January 20, 2004 – Sprit is in front of its first target – a rock named Adirondack. Adirondack was chosen above other possible targets (Sushi and Sashimi) because of its flat and relatively dustless surface. It is believed that Adirondack is a volcanic rock – possibly basalt.

January 19, 2004: Sprit heads towards it’s first target – an area dubbed the wasabi region, with rocks named sushi and sashimi.

January 16, 2004: Sprit takes the first microscopic image of another planet.

January 16, 2004: The magic carpet (the area of soil peeled away by Sprit’s airbags) is exhibiting strange behavior. Scientists are searching for reasons why.



Overview

The Mars Exploration Rovers are a pair of nearly identical robotic geologists currently on their way to Mars. They were named “Spirit” and “Opportunity” by 9 year old Sofi Collis, who was an orphan in Siberia until she was adopted and brought to the United States at the age of two. She named the rovers in her winning essay about being given the spirit and opportunity to live her dream – to fly. Sofi now aspires to become an astronaut.

Launched on June 10, 2003 and July 7, 2003 respectively, and scheduled to reach Mars in January of 2004, Spirit and Opportunity, will exhibit far more mobility than Pathfinder’s Sojourner and the Viking Project. Each rover will be able to travel up to 40 meters a day! Weighing in at 380 pounds each, the rovers are packed full of instruments to find evidence of Mars’ past.

From their starting points in Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum (on opposite sides of the planet) the rovers will explore targets selected by scientists on Earth. They will try to discover how the Martian landscape was shaped—by volcanic activities? Wind? Water? Meteor impacts? They will also try to answer questions like: “What was it like when liquid water was present?”, “How and when were the rocks on Mars formed?”and “Was there liquid water for a long time?”

Spirit and Opportunity’s mission will last until April 2004, but may extend longer as the status of the rovers allows.

The project is managed for NASA by the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and the Athena Instrument payload is run by Cornell University.

Preparation and instrumentation

The Athena Instrument payload contained inside the Mars Exploration rovers were proposed to NASA as early as 1996, and were selected in 1997 to launch in 2001. Unfortunately, loss of funding, engineering problems, and re-evaluations due to the failure of the Mars Polar Lander, caused the launch to be pushed back until 2003.

Each Rover carries five scientific instruments, and an abrasion tool (RAT). They also carry 256 MB of flash memory each - the Rover's primary memory storage. The rovers' batteries and temperature-sensitive components are housed inside a hot box, heated by electronic heaters and a small amount of nuclear material.

  • The Panoramic Camera: Also known as “PANCAM,” this will be the eyes of the rover and help to provide a geologic context. Scientists on Earth will use the images the PANCAM sends back to select which targets to study. At 1024x2048 pixels (1024x1024 active imaging area), it boasts 3x the resolution of cameras on the Mars Pathfinder. The PANCAM actually consists of two eyes, approximately 30 cm apart. This allows the PANCAM to provide stereo topography and range information. The eyes sit approximately 1.3 meters off of the Martian Surface, and can be rotated 360 degrees in azimuth and 90 degrees in elevation in both directions.

  • Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer: The Mini-TES will view Mars in the infrared spectrum, allowing scientists to locate amounts of several different kinds of minerals. The images from the Mini-TES will be used together with the PANCAM to choose targets for study. This instrument will particularly look for minerals formed by the presence of water.

  • Mössbauer Spectrometer: This instrument will search for iron-bearing minerals. Located on the rover arm, the Mössbauer Spectrometer will be placed directly against the targets it will study. A single measurement can take 12 hours.

  • Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer: The APXS is similar to instruments geologists use on Earth. It uses radioactive materials (curium-244) to measure the energy spectra of the scattered alpha particles. and emitted x-rays. It can determine the concentrations of most major elements in rocks and soil and looks at how they have been altered over time.

  • The Microscopic Imager: The PANCAM will look at Mars’ surface on the large scale. The MI will look at the very small. It uses the same 1024X1024 resolution, but is monochromatic. The imager will look at samples up close to revel essential clues as to how they were formed.

  • The Landing

    Both rovers will employ the bounce-down: a landing style that gets its odd name from the solution of using airbags to cushion the blow. Parachutes are of little use (although they are employed) in the Martian atmosphere which is 1% as dense as that of Earth. Once the rovers stop bouncing (at least a dozen times) and rolling (for a kilometer or more), the airbags will deflate and reveal the pyramid-shaped lander. The lander consists of a base and three petals folded up. Because there is no way to know which orientation the rover will end up in, the pyramid shape assures that when the petals are opened, if the rover is not upright it will be pushed into an upright position. Inside the lander will be the rover itself, which will immediately take a 360 degree view of its surroundings before leaving the lander behind.

    The job of choosing just two landing sites was a difficult one. The sites had to be exciting – yet safe to land. They had to be within a certain degree of latitudes to ensure there would be adequate solar power, of low enough elevation and be free of steep slopes, big rocks, and dust. Most importantly they had to be where there was strong evidence of past liquid water. Out of 185 choices it was narrowed down to 4 finalists.

  • Meridiani Planum - This site has an abundance of course grain hematite – which forms exclusively in water. Its flat terrain would make a safe landing site.

  • Melas - A large canyon filled with sedimentary rock. Surrounded by sand dunes – this site would have to be a bull’s-eye or a complete miss

  • Gusev Crater - A large basin that looks like it was once filled with water.

  • Athabasca Valles: - A geologically very young outflow channel.

  • After months of debate the Meridiani Planum and Gusev Crater sites were chosen.

    When Spirit touched down in Gusev Crater and the landing vehicle unfolded it's petals, the rover's first job was to take a panoramic view of the laning site. Scietists called the site "tailor-made" for the vehicle because it had lots of rocks to study, but no so many that they would be in the way. See Spirit's very first images here: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/press/spirit/20040104a/PIA04980_br.jpg

    The look

    Some people have described the rovers as a “six-wheeled ostrich with its wings spread.” This colorful phrase is actually quite indicative of the over all effect of the rovers. The six large independently motored wheels and tough suspension help the rovers get over many kinds of terrain. Independent turning motors for the front and rear set of wheels allow the rovers to turn in place. The outspread wedge-shaped solar panels provide power. The “head” of the rovers contain the PANCAM and other visual instruments.

    Mission Updates

  • August 6, 2003: An in-flight instrument test reveals some problems with Sprit’s Mössbauer spectrometer. Scientists are confident that even if the problem is not fixed valuable scientific data can still be collected.
  • November 3, 2003: Athena scientists figure out how to fix Spirit's Mössbauer.
  • December 26, 2003: Spirit's final flight path correction goes smoothly. Says: "Mars, here I come"!
  • December 30 2003: Spirit and Opportunity's Cousin Beagle 2 has not yet been heard from. The European Space Agency's plucky little explorer landed on December 25th. Scientists are rushing to try to find out what happened, and if the rover is still functional.
  • January 3, 2004: Spirit lands successfully in Gusev Crater. Scientists call the site "tailor-made for the rover"
  • January 5, 2004: Spirit seems to be doing fine. It’s first target is to be released at a press conference later today, expected to be an area Athena scientists have named “Sleepy Hollow”. Also to be released at the press conference – the status of the other instruments.
  • January 5, 2004: First panoramic images from Spirit arrive! Throw on your 3d glasses and check out Mars like you’ve never seen it before! (http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/?IDNumber=pia04993)
  • January 6, 2003: First color images received from Spirit (Low resolution: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/press/spirit/20040106a/PIA04995_br.jpg ) (High resolution - warning! Hi-res image is very large: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/press/spirit/20040106a/PIA04995_br2.jpg) . They are absolutely gorgeous. The highest resolution images ever taken of another planet's surface, they have inspired scientists to think again about the Rover’s mission.
  • January 8, 2004: One of Sprit's airbags (used to protect the craft during bounce down) is in an inconvienient location. Though not blocking the rover, scientists are understandably cautious and will try to push the airbag out of the way before Spirit leaves the landing vehicle. Sprit's wheels are due to get dirty in about a week.
  • January 9, 2004: The attempt to move the airbag in unsuccessful - Sprit will have to use a secondary ramp.
  • January 9, 2004: Sprit "stands up" by lowering its front legs. The first data from the Mini-TES has been sent back. This includes infra-red imaging of the area known as "Sleepy Hollow" (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/mer2004/rover-images/jan-09-2004/sleepy-hollow.jpg) and an analysis of the minerals around the landing area. Of most interest is the presence of carbonate minerals.
  • January 12, 2004: When the rovers land on Mars, they use airbags to cushion the blow. Computer-generated images of Spirit's scuff marks have been created from the visual data. (http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/press/spirit/20040112a/airbag_drag_mark_3d-A10R1_br2.jpg)
  • January 12, 2004: Spirit's first full panoramic view from the PANCAM is released. (http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/press/spirit/20040112a/mspan_2X_final-A10R1_br2.jpg)
  • January 15, 2004: Spirit ready to roll! At 12:21:30am Pacific Standard Time Sprit left the lander. Its first target is a crater approximatly 820 feet (250 meters)to the northeast. It will then head to the east hill complex 2 miles (3 kilometers) away.
  • References

  • Space.com (http://space.com)
  • Space Daily (http://spacedaily.com/)
  • JPL/NASA's official MER page (http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html)
  • Athena Instrument Site: (http://athena.cornell.edu/)
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