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Guest Blog: Ken Kremer April 18, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Space Exploration.
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Today, we feature a guest blogger who will catch us up with two of the space program’s greatest accomplishments, the Mars rovers. Anna met Ken Kremer as part of the press core for STS-133 back in November and was especially impressed by his range of knowledge about NASA and his enthusiasm.

Ken Kremer is a freelance science writer and scientist who regularly publishes writing and photography in online and print venues, including New Scientist, Science News, Aviation Weekand Spaceflight Now. For more of Ken Kremer’s work at Universe Today, click HEREHe does lectures around the country at museums, universities and schools, and clubs. He’s served as a Solar System Ambassador since 2005.

Photo credit for the three panoramic photographs here: NASA/JPL/Cornell, Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer.

MARS ROVERS CELEBRATE SEVENTH ANNIVERSARY ON RED PLANET

Ken Kremer, STS-133 Discovery

NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity surely rank as one of the greatest triumphs in the history of space exploration.

Seven years ago, the dynamic duo landed on opposite sides of the Red planet on January 3 and January 24, 2004. They were originally designed to operate for just 90 Martian days, or sols, with an outside possibility they might last a few months longer. In actuality—during the extended mission phase—they have endured light years beyond the mere three-month warranty proclaimed by NASA as the mission began with high hopes following the nail-biting so-called six minutes of terror as the twins plunged through the Martian atmosphere with no certainty as to the outcome of the landing.

Since 2004, the rovers’ longevity has far exceeded all expectations, and no one on the science and engineering teams that built and operate the twins can believe they lasted so long and produced so much.

Spirit and Opportunity have accomplished a remarkable series of scientific breakthroughs, far surpassing the wildest dreams of all the researchers and NASA officials. Indeed, both rovers are positioned at scientific goldmines on the red planet’s surface. Opportunity is still alive and trekking across the Martian plains, now 84 months into the three-month mission. By the time of her last dispatch from Gusev crater, Spirit had lasted for nearly six years of bonus mission time.

New images taken by the rovers appear at NASA’s Mars Rover websites on a continuing basis. The raw images have inspired myself and others to assemble panoramic mosaics from the individual snapshots to illustrate the broader context of what Spirit and Opportunity see. This blog post includes a few photomosaics created by Marco Di Lorenzo and myself to show the current environments explored by both rovers.

Spirit’s panoramic mosaic was taken on Sol 2175 in February 2010, a few weeks before entering hibernation mode in March 2010 just prior to the onset of her fourth winter on Mars. The Columbia Hills serve as a backdrop in this image.

Spirit last communicated with mission controllers back on Earth on March 22, 2010. The rover had entered hibernation mode as the autumn sunlight available to power her life giving solar arrays was diminishing. NASA hopes to reawaken Spirit from a long slumber and reignite her illustrious campaign of exploration and discovery. No one is giving up hope for Spirit, and NASA is stepping up operational efforts to contact the plucky rover since the amount of springtime Martian sunlight is now increasing over the next few months.

Although Spirit has been stalled at a place called Troy since April 2009, the rover made a significant science discovery at that exact spot. Spirit examined the soil in great detail and found key evidence that water, perhaps as snow melt, trickled into the subsurface fairly recently and on a continuing basis. While driving on the western edge of an eroded over volcanic feature named Home Plate, Spirit unknowingly broke through a hard surface crust (perhaps 1 cm thick) and sank into hidden soft sand beneath. At Troy, the rover discovered that the crust was comprised of water related sulfate materials and therefore found further evidence for the past flow of liquid water on the surface of Mars – a great science discovery! Our photomosaic shows the very last panoramic view taken by Spirit at Troy.

This collage of two maps and a new close up panorama of Santa Maria crater (bottom right) shows the route traversed by the Opportunity Mars rover during the seven-year overland expedition across the Meridiani Planum region of Mars.

Meanwhile, Opportunity is blazing a trail of discovery in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. This rover completed exploration of the stadium-sized Santa Maria Crater which holds deposits of water bearing minerals that will further elucidate the potential for habitability on the red planet. The rover arrived at the western edge of the relatively fresh impact crater on December 16, 2010 (Sol 2451). This intermediate stop on the rover’s 19-kilometer journey from Victoria Crater to giant 14-kilometer-wide Endeavour Crater provides important ground truth observations to compare with the orbital detection of exposures of hydrated sulfate minerals.

Opportunity is driving to different vantage points around the steep walled crater and snapping a series of gorgeous Martian vistas. The rock-strewn crater is a Martian geologist’s dream. As our photomosaics show, the robot was imaged on New Year’s Eve in exquisite high resolution from Mars orbit while parked at the sharp edge as she was simultaneously snapping a multitude of awesome views peering inside the stunning and scientifically interesting crater.

Opportunity’s surface view of Santa Maria on New Years Eve Dec 31 while being photographed overhead from Mars Orbit. Opportunity took this panoramic mosaic just meters from the crater rim on Dec. 29, 2010 (Sol 2464). Note rover tracks near rim at left, relatively clean solar panel at right and numerous ejecta rocks.

Santa Maria is just six kilomters from the western rim of Endeavour which shows spectral signatures of phyllosilicates, or clay bearing minerals, which formed in water about four billion years ago and have never before been directly analyzed on the Martian surface.  Phyllosilicates form in neutral aqueous conditions that could have been more habitable and conducive to the formation of life than the later Martian episodes of more harshly acidic conditions in which the sulfates formed that Opportunity has already been exploring during her seven-year overland expedition. See the Astronomy Picture of the Day featuring Opportunity HERE.

Opportunity remains healthy and has abundant solar power for the final leg of the long eastward march to Endeavour, with arrival later in 2011. See the rover’s progress HERE. And click HERE for Google Mars.

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