Washington: The US space agency’s Mars rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—this month mark their fifth anniversary on the red planet, where they have endured harsh conditions and revealed a deluge of information.
The twin robots, which landed on Mars three weeks apart in January 2004, were initially expected to have just 90-day missions, but have since sent back a quarter-million images, toured mountains and craters and survived violent storms.
“The American taxpayer was told three months for each rover was the prime mission plan. The twins have worked almost 20 times that long,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) assistant administrator Ed Weiler said in a statement.
The rovers, which along with 250,000 images have sent back to earth some 36 gigabytes of data, have greatly advanced Nasa’s understanding of Mars’ geology, including peeks into the its wet and habitable past. Analysts say the wealth of information will keep scientists busy for years as they further unravel the vast banks of data.
Since 2004 the machines have covered 21km of Mars’ red rock desert, driving inch by inch to avoid chasms and rocky obstacles, picking up samples and snapping images to beam back to earth.
“These rovers are incredibly resilient considering the extreme environment the hardware experiences every day,” said John Callas, project manager for the rovers.
“We realize that a major rover component on either vehicle could fail at any time and end a mission with no advance notice, but on the other hand, we could accomplish the equivalent duration of four more prime missions on each rover in the year ahead.”
While the machines have had relatively balmy 20 degrees Celsius summers, they have had to endure frigid extremes, where temperatures of minus 100 degrees Celsius in winter are common.
Harsh Martian winds, however, have provided an occasional cleaning job to the rovers’ solar panels—critical instruments to power the machines.
This unconventional aid, however, has not been reliable, with the Spirit machine’s panels hardly clear enough to survive its third southern hemisphere winter, which ended in December.
Although the $820 million (Rs4,010 crore) project’s mission began as scientific, it has become something much larger, according to Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the mission’s principal investigator.
The journeys “have led to something else important”, he said. “This has turned into humanity’s first overland expedition on another planet.”