January 20, 2006

Rovers Exceed Expectations

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The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have nearly tripled their expected lifetime on the Red Planet.

Each rover consists of a complicated set of equipment known as the Athena Science Payload. Detailed pictures are taken in mosaic form and then assembled into full views. These pictures provide the specific evidence for the historical presence of water.

The goal of the mission has been to determine the history of climate and water on the planet, and was accomplished when Opportunity found evidence of hematite, a substance formed in the presence of water. Opportunity also found several rock formations that demonstrated evidence of long-term water habitation. Spirit found similar signs of water near Husband Hill.

Prof. Steven Squyres Ph.D. ’78, astronomy, principal investigator of the mission, has written a book, titled Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet, that discusses the mission in detail during its first 500 sols, or Martian days. Squyres said that the team “has discovered quite a bit [in the recent past]” and that he has “talked with [his] publisher about updating the book with some additional chapters once the mission is over.”

However, Squyres isn’t solely responsible for the success of the mission. Thousands of other scientists and researchers are involved with the project; every movement of the rovers is meticulously pre-planned by a team of workers from around the world. Although there are some minor problems, the rovers are still in good functioning condition.

“The grinding head on Spirit has worn out and one of the steering actuators has failed on Opportunity,” Squyres said. He added, “On both rovers, the radioactive source in the Moessbauer spectrometer is getting weak.”

Squyres said that there is no way to predict how much longer the rovers will continue to function on Mars.

“All the components in the rover were designed to last the equivalent of 270 sols before we launched and we’ve now been on Mars more than 700 sols,” Squyres said.

Because they have outlasted their estimated life span, there is no longer any basis for forecasting their future performance.

“They could last another two years, or they could drop dead tomorrow,” Squyres said.

Spirit is progressing towards Home Plate and then McCool Hill. Opportunity is heading toward Victoria Crater.

Some current students feel privileged to attend the university that is most closely connected with the Spirit and Opportunity mission.

“The mission is really interesting; going to school can become very routine but it’s at times like these that you really appreciate going to Cornell University,” said Mickey Lai Alterman ’08.

The rovers have been far more successful than the previous missions to Mars. They are more capable than the 1997 Mars Pathfinder Mission and can go further in a single day than the Sojourner rover went over its entire mission.

Archived article by Dana Mendelowitz
Sun Staff Writer