In January 2004, two exploration vehicles touched down on Mars, beginning a 90-day mission in search of potential sources of water, a precursor for life, on a seemingly dead planet.
Armed with geological instruments, cameras and the technology required to beam down information to scientists at La Cañada’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spirit and Opportunity were expected to traverse separate courses of about two-thirds of one mile during their three-month journeys.
Now, 10 years later, scientists are still sifting through mountains of data and images collected by Spirit, which traveled 4.8 miles during its six years of mobile operation, and Opportunity, which has logged an amazing 23.6 miles and continues today.
Throughout January, to commemorate the past decade of science and discovery that has been accomplished by the twin Mars Exploration rovers (MER), NASA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) are sponsoring a series of events and talks, highlighted by a photographic museum exhibit that runs through Sept. 14.
Locally, JPL is hosting its own events, including a public celebration this evening (Thursday) at 7 p.m. in Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. It will feature JPL Director Charles Elachi, MER Project Manager John Callas and Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society of Pasadena, in addition to several rover team members.
“The rovers Spirit and Opportunity are human proxies on the surface, so they are exploring on our behalf. As a result, we care for them and we have interest in them,” Callas said in an interview. “I was there at the beginning, so I have very affectionate ties to these rovers.”
On Friday, Callas will lecture on “The Mars Exploration Rovers: A Decade of Exploration,” at 7 p.m. at Pasadena City College’s Volosh Forum. Both events are free and open to the public.
The idea is to let people know how far Spirit and Opportunity have taken scientists in their attempt to unveil mysteries surrounding the Red Planet, namely whether it did, or could, sustain human life.
From the beginning, data collected by the rovers has been impressive, Steve Squyres, a Cornell University astronomy professor and principal investigator for the MER mission, said in a Jan. 7 panel discussion on the robotic and human missions held at the National Air and Space Museum.
“I did not expect that the evidence for liquid water at and below the surface of Mars was going to be that compelling, that much in our face, when we landed,” Squyres said in the discussion. “It was all right there from day one.”
John Grant, supervisory geologist at the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at NASM and science operations working group chair for the MER mission, spoke about the scientific aspects of the rovers.
Grant described Spirit and Opportunity as mobile geology labs doing on-the-spot science and data collection to find out how water may have shaped the Martian environment. The ultimate goal, he explained, is to see if the landscape might ever support manned exploration.
“What we’re trying to do is answer a series of science-based questions to help us understand the environment, what it means both scientifically in its own right, but also what it means in terms of resources that might be of benefit to a future human mission,” he said.
While the longevity of the two rovers, Opportunity in particular, is worthy of recognition, Callas points out that the decennial celebration’s main aim is to honor the enormous contributions the plucky vehicles have made to man’s knowledge of the Red Planet and to wonder at what’s next.
“Mars was one time like the Earth, back when life started on Earth,” Callas said. “(So) why is Mars different today? What happened to the planet? There are some great mysteries that we intend to explore.”
A public celebration of Spirit and Opportunity, hosted by JPL, takes place on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. in Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, 1200 E. California Blvd., Pasadena. On Friday, JPL hosts a public lecture by John Callas, titled “The Mars Exploration Rovers: A Decade of Exploration,” at Pasadena City College’s Vosloh Forum, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Both events are free.