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Rolling Right Along…

Mars Rovers Finish Primary Mission and Roll Onward

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Following a long drive, the Spirit rover took this backward glance at its tracks across the landscape on sol 90 of its mission (April 4, 2004). Photo by NASA/JPL

Early in April, NASA approved an extended mission for the Mars Exploration Rovers, handing them up to five months of overtime assignments as they finished their three-month prime mission.

The first of the two rovers, Spirit, met the success criteria set for its prime mission. Spirit passed the test on April 5, when it exceeded 600 meters (1,969 feet) of total drive distance and completed 90 martian operational days after landing. Opportunity, which landed three weeks after Spirit, completed its 90th martian day of operations April 26. In its three-month primary mission, Opportunity drove 811 meters (more than half a mile) and sent home 15.2 gigabits of data about Mars, including 12,429 images.

Both rovers have met all goals for numbers of locations examined in detail, distances traveled, and scientific measurements with all instruments.

“Spirit and Opportunity have completed all the primary objectives of the mission. The terrific success achieved is a tribute to a superb team whose commitment to excellence, and keeping the public engaged, is hard to match,” said Orlando Figueroa, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Beyond the quantifiable criteria, such as using all research tools at both landing sites and investigating at least eight locations, the rovers have returned remarkable science results. The most dramatic have been Opportunity’s findings of evidence of a shallow body of salty water in the past in the Mars Meridiani Planum region.

The mission extension provides $15 million for operating the rovers through September. The extension more than doubles exploration for less than a 2 percent additional investment, if the rovers remain in working condition. The extended mission has seven new goals for extending the science and engineering accomplishments of the prime mission.

Three new engineering objectives are to traverse more than a kilometer (0.62 mile) to demonstrate mobility technologies; to characterize solar-array performance over long durations of dust deposition at both landing sites; and to demonstrate long-term operation of two mobile science robots on a distant planet.

Late in May, mission controllers began frequent use of a “deep sleep” mode for Opportunity. It is a more complete overnight shutdown that conserves energy but at a calculated tradeoff of risking damage to the miniature thermal emission spectrometer. The strategy has approximately tripled the amount of time the solar-powered rover can work during the day. So far, the spectrometer has survived, but as the martian winter advances, scientists expect to lose the use of that instrument, according to JPL’s Matt Wallace, mission manager.


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Rensselaer Magazine: Summer 2004
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