Seven years ago this month, Spirit bounced down onto the surface of the Red Planet, rolled to a stop upright, and beeped home, ready to roll. Three weeks later, Opportunity not only bounced down safely and right into a small crater, but opened its "eyes" to see what the Mars Exploration Rovers had been sent to find signs that water had once flowed there.
The Mars Exploration Rovers are wrapping up another year of exploring their seventh -- having experienced both the best of times and the worst of times: Spirit continued a 10-month struggle to endure its coldest, harshest Martian winter yet; Opportunity set a new record for driving despite an arthritic front wheel and a broken shoulder, putting more miles on her rocker bogie in 2010 than in any other single year.
The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) forged on in November, their 83rd month of an expedition originally planned for three months: Spirit remained silent at Gusev Crater presumably still re-charging her batteries, as Opportunity roved through a field of craters pressing on toward Endeavour Crater, quietly claiming title along the way to being the first roving robot to drive 25 kilometers on Mars.
In the last few days, Opportunity's passed by several craters, and the rover drivers took advantage of the chance encounters for what they call "drive-by shooting" (a phrase I can't say I'm particularly fond of, but they didn't ask me).
For the Mars Exploration Rovers, October was a lot like September, which was a lot like August: Spirit continued hibernating at Gusev Crater or so it appears since the rover didn't phone home; and Opportunity picked up the pace to Endeavour Crater again, setting new driving records and marking more milestones along the way.
Waaaay back when Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004, the Planetary Society helped the public participate in the missions with a number of projects, including one where we printed "secret codes" around the edges of the two names-bearing DVDs that were bolted to the Mars Exploration Rover landers.
As Opportunity picked up the pace to Endeavour Crater this month and crossed the halfway point on the long journey from Victoria Crater and Spirit continued sleeping in hibernation mode, the Mars Exploration Rovers chalked up their 81st month of what was supposed to have been just a three-month tour of the Red Planet.
Opportunity is continuing to make tracks toward Endeavour crater, but just because she's got a goal for her road trip doesn't mean she won't stop and smell the flowers from time to time. Er, did I say "flowers?" I meant "meteorites."
With the Sun beginning to warm the landscape in the southern hemisphere of the Red Planet and winds whipping up here and there forming dust devils that kick the powdery, rust-colored topsoil into the atmosphere, the Mars Exploration Rovers have been experiencing sure signs of a Martian spring this month.
I've had a fun morning of noodling around learning how to write KML files, and have produced one for Google Mars that shows you all of the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter tracks that cross the area Opportunity has driven through already, as well as the area of Endeavour crater.