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.
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.
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.
The HiRISE instrument on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter really is a spy camera in space. Check out this sequence of nine images from the HiRISE archives, which Doug Ellison pulled together into an animation covering more than a year of Spirit's mission.
Opportunity is now following a rather leisurely autumn schedule, according to the latest update on the mission website. Some of the work Opportunity is doing involves staring skyward, looking for patterns in the clouds that pass overhead at this time of year. One of the guys at unmannedspaceflight.com has put together some nifty animations of the wispy cloud patterns.
The Mars Exploration Rovers celebrated their fourth birthdays and began their fifth year of exploring this month -- and for the first time since the big dust storm hit the headlines last summer, Spirit and Opportunity made the news. It wasn't for the notable exploration or engineering milestone they had just achieved or the discoveries they've helped scientists make about a once very different Mars. It was because of an alleged "Bigfoot" sighting.
The story of a Sasquatch-shaped rock visible in a recent panorama from Spirit is getting a lot of play in the mainstream media, but fortunately, it's not being taken very seriously. (My favorite take on this picture is the lead from the Times Online story about it: "Is it a rock? A trick of Martian light on the eye? Or Osama Bin Laden waving from his barren hideout 300 million miles from planet Earth?")
The mission was only supposed to last three months, maybe six months if all went well, but the Mars Exploration Rovers surprised everyone. Demonstrating an uncanny kind of "robot right stuff," they roved far beyond what anyone dreamed and now, in a matter of days, Spirit and Opportunity will celebrate their 4th birthdays and rove into their fifth year of exploring the Red Planet.
Dust from the sky has settled on both the rover deck and the surrounding landscape. The dust-covered solar cells will not be able to generate as much power as when they were clean. Unless a puff of wind dusts off the solar panels, Spirit may have difficulty surviving the approaching Martian winter.