It's been a September to remember for the Mars Exploration Rovers with Spirit producing enough power to return to its science assignments on a daily basis and Opportunity commanding the spotlight once again as it embarked on a long journey toward a new, humongous crater and one of the most ambitious adventures undertaken on the mission.
Mars Exploration Rover principal investigator Steve Squyres announced on National Public Radio's Science Friday show the next goal for Opportunity, and it's a long, long, long way away: a huge crater about 12 kilometers southeast of its current location, which the team is referring to internally as "Endeavour."
Clear skies and a warming Sun brightened winter in the southern hemisphere of the Red Planet, giving the Mars Exploration Rovers, appropriately enough, an august month. Opportunity packed up, left Cape Verde in the dust, and made headlines when it roved out of Victoria Crater last Thursday. On the other side of the planet, Spirit picked up the pace of photographing its surroundings for its next big, 360-degree, full color panorama.
After cruising through winter solstice in late June, the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) roved into July taking every advantage of a winter that is by all appearances now proving to be rather mild for the Red Planet. At Gusev Crater, Spirit managed to maintain its power level and get back to doing a little bit of science, while on the other side of the planet, at Meridiani Planum, Opportunity finished photographing Cape Verde and began to chart its course back to Duck Bay where it will exit Victoria Crater.
I was delighted to receive an email from Morten Bo Madsen, who I knew from the Mars Exploration Rover mission as "that Danish magnet guy," the fellow responsible for the magnet experiments on nearly every American Mars mission. The magnets were originally designed to study the properties of airborne Martian dust, which would help determine its composition.
One of the ways that planetary scientists try to understand the origin and evolution of landforms on other planets is by studying similar kinds of landforms or "analogs" here on the Earth. For the past few days I've been working with a group of colleagues doing just that--specifically, studying dunes in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in order to try to better understand the nature of sand dunes on Mars.
As Phoenix commanded the headlines with its flawless touchdown in the arctic region of the Red Planet this past month, the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) forged onward slowly, quietly and out of the spotlight, heading into the depths of their third Martian winter. Spirit persevered and held its own in terms of energy, while Opportunity, after six weeks of being stopped in its tracks with a shoulder joint injury, roved once more.
A majority of the people who work in planetary geology are usually associated with one or maybe two missions, doing all their research on the results from one instrument on one mission. But there are a few people whose expertise cuts across many space missions, and an even smaller number of people who seem to work on almost everything. Randy Kirk is one of those people.
With winter settling in on the southern hemisphere of the Red Planet, the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) spent April working on their respective science campaigns and hunkering down in brutally chilly nights that are seeing temperatures drop to around -95 degree Celsius. As the month comes to an end at Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum, there is good news and there is bad news.
Brandishing the trademark resilience that has endeared them to millions of people around the world, the Mars Exploration Rovers kept their robotic noses to the grindstone through March, soldiering on into their third Martian winter with slightly more power than predictions anticipated and enough proven mettle to dodge a budgetary pothole on Earth that might have taken one of them out of action. Now, 50 months after Spirit defied the odds and bounced safely to an upright landing and Opportunity followed with the impossible scoring of a 300-million-mile hole-in-one, the twin robot field geologists are driving the MER mission into new territory once again.