An artist's concept shows one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers, cushioned by air bags, bouncing to a landing in January 2004. The first rover, Spirit, studied Mars for seven years before it expired, while the second, Opportunity, continues to explore the Red Planet. Both rovers found evidence of a watery past at their landing sites, on opposite sides of the planet. Combined, they have logged about 29 miles (44 km) of driving. [NASA]
Mars Exploration Rovers
The first of a pair of Mars rovers bounced to a halt on the Red Planet 10 years ago this week. In the decade since, they’ve driven almost 30 miles while revealing important details about Mars’s history.
Spirit was the first of the Mars Exploration Rovers. It used a combination of rockets, parachutes, and airbags to land in Gusev Crater on January 3rd, 2004. A few days later, a problem with its computer memory brought the rover to a quick halt, and it looked like its mission might be over before it had even begun. But engineers worked around the problem and sent Spirit to explore its environment.
The rover soon climbed into a series of small hills, where it examined rock layers from the distant past. Spirit’s observations revealed that Gusev Crater was once filled with water — a further confirmation that Mars was once much warmer and wetter than it is today.
Spirit got stuck in a patch of deep sand in 2010. It was trapped at an angle where its solar panels couldn’t collect enough sunlight, so it expired during the long, dark Martian winter.
Its “twin,” the Opportunity rover, landed on Mars just three weeks after Spirit. It, too, found evidence of a watery past. Over the past decade, Opportunity explored one large crater, then motored to an even bigger one, where it sits today — continuing to probe the mysteries of the Red Planet.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.