Anatomy of Spirit & Opportunity rovers

This week marks the 10th anniversary of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover program. In honor of the occasion, Los Angeles radio station KPCC (in conjunction with the Crawford Family Forum and the Planetary Society) hosted a fantastic evening with a lively panel discussion and live gypsy swing music from Hedgehog Swing. After introductory remarks from Steven Squyres, the scientific principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Project, and Emily Lakdawalla and Bruce Betts of the Planetary Society, guests were treated to a taste of Hedgehog Swing, then introduced to the discussion panel.

Jim Bell, John Grotzinger, and Rob Manning, all leaders on the Mars Exploration team, and Bill Nye (the Science Guy and CEO of the Planetary Society) talked about what we’ve learned in the past 10 years, what’s happening on Mars today, and about the future, including the upcoming Mars 2020 project.

Grotzinger, a geologist, explained how they’re addressing one of the biggest challenges of trying to find evidence of life on Mars. “We’ve learned a lot about the process of alternating landers, rovers, and orbiters, which allows us to focus in more closely on finding the answer to a specific question.” He went on to say that because of the rovers’ slow rate of travel, and the fact that the core samples they collect are roughly the size of a golf pencil, and because of the fact that only 20-30 of those samples can be brought home, the orbiters play a critical role in helping scientists decide where the rovers should sample. “Overall, it’s drive and drill, but there are different kinds of geology, and [using the orbiters lets us] pick carefully and get the most diverse suite of samples possible.”

While Curiosity is equipped with a small antenna and can transmit data back to earth, the antenna is so small that the transmission speed is equivalent to a 1200-baud modem. Thanks to its ability to transmit to an orbiter with a much larger antenna, though, Curiosity is able to send much larger files like photos back to Earth.

Asked what’s changed and what we’ve learned in the past 10 years, Bell replied, “Well, in the time since Spirit and Opportunity landed, we’ve learned how to operate a radio-controlled vehicle on another planet! We’ve also learned how to live our lives on Mars time. Curiosity has 500 team members, and we’re all living according to Mars time … One thing that’s different now than 10 years ago is this whole culture of enthusiasts who are now a part of this.” He went on to explain how the Internet has made it possible for the public to be connected so much more immediately and intimately than ever before, and how these enthusiasts play an important role in keeping space in the minds of the public.


Curiosity rover

Manning continued on the theme of what’s changed, “We’ve got this whole generation of new scientists who look at things so differently [than when Spirit and Opportunity were launched]. And we now understand a lot more about how to go about systematic exploration.” He explains how, even though they had exploration plans in place when Spirit and Opportunity launched, circumstances they encountered on Mars sometimes led them to trial and error, and because of the solutions they found, the teams for today’s and tomorrow’s rovers have a huge advantage.

Although rover Spirit got stuck in the sand and stopped communicating in 2010, it still vastly outperformed expectations. They’ve had extremely good luck with Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, which was only designed to run for about 90 days. It was assumed that even if it didn’t break down, the solar collectors would become too covered in dust to work effectively any more, but, in fact, there have, so far, been enough wind storms to blow the collectors clean enough to keep functioning, and aside from a front wheel which no longer turns and a couple of instruments that broke, Opportunity is still going strong.

So, what does the future hold? What’s going on with Mars 2020? Will we be landing humans on Mars? Bell says, “We shouldn’t oversell our ability to produce evidence of life on Mars, but we’re the first people to try … We’re now selecting landing sites for Mars 2020. We’ve had proposals from 58 teams [all hoping to get their instrument or project included on Mars 2020]. Only 5 to 10 will go. We do know that 2020 will be able to cache samples for later retrieval, so we’ll be able to gather more material.” Asked what his pick for inclusion on 2020 would be, Bell responded he is pulling for the zoom-capable camera he proposed. As to the prospect of humans on Mars, Bell remarked that there are a lot of things to be worked out. “Is it safe? Where should we land them? Where do we need the people to be?” He also mentions the significant matters of shelter and transportation yet to be worked out.

Grotzinger adds, “We’re dealing with rocks so sharp, they’re making holes in aluminum wheels. Those are going to poke holes right through your boots.” And then there are larger matters of logistics. Grotzinger continues, “Do we know how to get a giant can of people onto the surface?”

Conceptual rendering of Mars 2020 landing

Conceptual rendering of Mars 2020 landing

The entire panel was asked whether they felt we’re erring too much on the side of caution when it comes to the idea of landing humans on Mars. Grotzinger responded, “I think when it comes down to it, it’s their money [the potential travelers to Mars], their life. If they’re willing to take the risk and they want to go, they should be able to go.”

Manning remarked, “If they can think of a way, let them go.”

Bell pointed out, “It may not be NASA. I love my space agency, I support it,  and I believe in it, but it’s becoming risk-averse, at the risk of becoming stagnant. Private companies are willing to take the risk.”

Metz reminded the group that this upcoming week holds the anniversaries of the Apollo I fire, which killed three crew members (January 27, 1967), the Challenger disaster, which killed all seven crew members (January 28, 1986), and the Columbia crash, which also killed all seven people aboard (February 1, 2003). NASA has designated February 1 as a Day of Remembrance of those who have given their lives in service to our space exploration programs.



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