Tomorrow NASA will be launching the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to begin an eight month journey to the red planet. Today we take a look at it’s predecessors the highly successful Mars Exploration Rovers.
Mars Exploration Rovers (MER)
Launched in 2003 the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were sent to explore the surface and geology of Mars. The two rovers were launching within a month of each other and used an airbag landing to arrive on the surface of Mars eight months later in early 2004.
Each rover was designed to operate for 90 sols (Sol is a day on Mars, which is almost 40m longer than a day on earth). The rovers far exceeded there designed life with Spirit finally giving up after ~2208 sols. Opportunity is still operational today over 2777 sols after arriving on the planet.
The rovers have provided a wealth of information from the surface of Mars and have demonstrated that we can operate in distant environments for extended periods of time.
While the rovers have been active for a long time they certainly have had some luck along the way and have to rest during the winter months due to not having enough solar energy to charge the battery.
Several times during the mission NASA noticed that the power levels on the rovers suddenly increased having declined due to the buildup of dust on the solar panels. They determine later that these were because of wind gusts called dust devil’s that had hit the rover cleaning off the dust, this was confirmed in 2010 when Opportunity spotted a wind gust (dust devil).
Since arriving on the planet each of the rovers has sent back a large amount of pictures, including panoramic views of the environment around the rover. These images are available on NASA’s Mars Rover web site.
We don’t know how much longer Opportunity will operate for, soon it will enter it’s next winter hibernation period. However as long as it has power, is communicating and NASA has funding we can expect more from the amazing rover.