Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Steven W. Squyres Cornell University
In January of 2004, twin robotic explorers named Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars. Expected to last for 90 days, their mission has now gone on for more than nine years. Its objective is to search for evidence of past water on Mars, and to determine if Mars ever had conditions that would have been suitable for life.
Spirit landed in Gusev Crater, a large impact crater in the southern highlands of Mars. Finding only ancient lava on the crater floor, Spirit drove a mile and a half to the base of the Columbia Hills, a mountain range near the landing site. There Spirit ascended Husband Hill, the highest summit in the range, finding evidence that the rocks were modified long ago by water. Later, Spirit found strong evidence for ancient hot springs on Mars. Spirit’s mission ended after six years on the martian surface.
Opportunity landed on Meridiani Planum, a smooth plateau near the martian equator. In the first few weeks after landing, Opportunity found compelling evidence for long-ago water on Mars. This evidence included thick deposits of sulfate salts, concretions that precipitated from liquid water, and rocks that preserve ancient ripples formed when water flowed over sand. Opportunity has driven more than twenty miles across the martian surface, and has been exploring Endeavour Crater, a spectacular impact crater fifteen miles in diameter.
To develop Spirit and Opportunity, a team of more than 4,000 highly motivated engineers and scientists overcame a host of technical challenges. The challenges were multiplied by an extraordinarily tight schedule that was driven by the motions of the planets. The talk will provide an up-to-date summary of the missions of Spirit and Opportunity, from their initial conception through their development, launch, landing, and operations on the surface of Mars. It will also present the most recent results from NASA’s follow-on mission with the rover Curiosity.