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April 7, 2013

Mars Rover Anniversary

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It's the fourth anniversary of NASA's rover mission to Mars and both "Spirit" and "Opportunity" have made it to spots where their solar panels are getting enough power from the planets' weak winter sunlight. As this ScienCentral News explains, the anniversary marks another incredible milestone, because the rovers were expected to last only a few months.

Tenacious Twins

The twin Mars Exploration Rovers "Spirit" and "Opportunity" landed in January 2004 with the mission of exploring Mars for three months. As the years passed we may have begun to take them for granted, but they've never ceased to amaze lead scientist Steve Squyres.

"The previous landings on Mars-- there had been three: two Vikings and Pathfinder -- all involved stationary landers, they couldn't go anywhere," Squyres recalled. "And what we wanted to do was to explore in the truest sense of that word."

That meant giving the robots wheels to travel, camera eyes to see and computer brains to record and communicate – as well as some tools geologists would want along.

After the landings, the biggest challenge continues to be the threat of Martian dust coating their solar power supplies.

The Rovers weathered severe dust storms in July, and are now poised to weather yet another Martian winter. The rover operations teams have driven both rovers to northward-facing slopes to maximize the winter sunlight falling on their solar panels.

Both rovers accomplished the mission of finding evidence of water on Mars within their allotted 90 days, then soldiered on to make more surprising discoveries. Recently, Spirit even capitalized on its dragging right wheel by analyzing the soil it turned up, providing new evidence that Mars may have once harbored life.

While relying on smart maneuvering, conservation and a certain amount of good luck, Squyres learned to accept the missions' successes while anticipating their eventual end.

"There's always going to be some tantalizing thing just beyond our reach that we didn't quite get to," he said. "And that's, I guess, the nature of exploration and so we just live with it."

NASA has extended the rovers' missions five times, most recently in October, 2007.

"We're going to keep operating these vehicles until they drop dead," said Squyres. "And that could be days, weeks, years, I have no idea."

PUBLICATIONS: presentation at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, December 2008.

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