January 26 – Mars Needs Probes

Today’s factismal: All of NASA’s unmanned probes (except space telescopes) are run out of JPL.

Back in the 1990s, NASA had problems, especially at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California. Underfunded and over-mandated, they had to find a way to do more with less. One way that they did so was by developing a new class of missions that would be faster, better, and cheaper than what went before. (JPL wags immediately told management that they could “pick two”.)  And perhaps the most successful mission to come out of that program was the Mars Exploration Rover. NASA built two and with the inevitability of government-speak called them MER-A and MER-B. These rovers would launch from Florida in self-contained packages. Once at Mars, they would fall through the atmosphere until they were slowed by a parachute and rockets; at the appropriate time, they would fall to the ground and bounce around on air bags, just like those used in cars. Once the package had reached the ground, it would unfold, revealing the rover within. Though the landing might sound complicated and more than a little silly, it was necessary, given Mars’ thin atmosphere; fortunately, MER-A and -B had an older sibling (the aptly-named Pathfinder and Sojourner) that had field-tested the process and shown that it could work.

The little rover that could; Opportunity has lasted twwelve long years on Mars (take *that* Mark Whatney!) (Image courtesy NASA)

The little rover that could; Opportunity has lasted twelve long years on Mars (take *that* Mark Watney!)
(Image courtesy NASA)

So on July 7, 2003, MER-B was launched from Earth. For more than a year it flew toward the red planet before beginning what NASA wonks called “the most expensive controlled crash-landing in the history of space”. Fortunately, everything worked and the probe rolled out to start its 90 day mission on January 25, 2004. (Think 90 days is short? Sojourner had been given a seven day mission; it ended up lasting for 83 days.) And soon MER-B was following the JPL tradition of exceeding all expectations. It drove further than any other rover before. It collected more data and more images than any other rover. And it discovered more new things about Mars than any other rover. But MER-B was unwieldy to say, and so JPL renamed it “Opportunity”. And, for the past twelve years, Opportunity has kept  on knocking down our ideas of what rovers can do. As of today, it has spent 4,384 Earth days (4,266 Mars days) on Mars; that works out to be 12 Earth years (6 Mars years and 5 Mars months).. All told, Opportunity has exceeded our expectations 48 times over!

One of the high points of Opportunity's voyage, this panorama was taken from the dizzying height of 440 ft! (Image courtesy NASA)

One of the high points of Opportunity’s voyage, this panorama was taken from the dizzying height of 440 ft!
(Image courtesy NASA)

And in that twelve years, the rover has collected a lot of data. It has collected so much data that there are images that the scientists haven’t completely analyzed yet. And that’s where you come in! If you want to explore Mars but don’t want to spend twelve years at it, why not head on over to Planet Four: Terrains? This site asks you to look at images of Mars taken from orbit. You’ll classify the image based on a simple set of choices and help the scientists to build up a catalog of neat things that they might want to send the next rover to explore! To learn more, rove over to:

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