The Evolution Of Mars Rovers During The Last 25 Years
Few tasks are more complicated than launching a robot into orbit and having it land safely. On the morning of July 4, 1997, mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, hoped against hope to safely land a spacecraft on Mars.
Twenty-five years ago, a six-wheeled rover, dubbed Sojourner, became the first in a long line of rovers developed and controlled by NASA to go to the red planet. Four other NASA rovers have investigated the Red Planet, each more competent and complicated than the last.
Curiosity celebrated its 10th anniversary on August 5. On the other hand, perseverance is busy gathering rocks that future robots are expected to acquire and bring back to Earth. Zhurong, China's first Mars rover, landed on the planet last year.
The twin Viking landers of the 1970s, which were the first to picture the Martian surface up close, and the InSight probe, which has been listening for Marsquakes rocking the planet's interior, are just two examples of other Mars spacecraft that have done outstanding research from a standstill.
In contrast, roving allows a robot to investigate the area and gather together hints about its past on another world. "It's a voyage of discovery," says Kirsten Siebach, a planetary scientist at Rice University in Houston.
The fact that the Mars rovers have visited so many diverse locations has allowed scientists to understand frozen Mars' history better.
The rovers discovered that Mars had water and other circumstances favorable to life for a significant portion of its history. After that, Perseverance began its search for evidence of ancient life on Mars.
As each rover is created, planned, and driven by a team of human beings, each one is unique. The double helix form of DNA is shown on one of the wheels of Perseverance, a nod to the Mars rover's footprints. This article is all about the evolution of Mars Rovers throughout the years.
Sojourner, the first rover, was conceived when engineers were unsure if they could even get a robotic to function on Mars.
In the early 1990s, then-NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin pushed the agency to accomplish tasks "faster, higher, and cheaper" – a mantra that engineers would criticize by claiming that only two of these three things were feasible at the same time.
NASA had no experience with interplanetary rovers. Only the Soviet Union had previously deployed rovers on the moon in 1970 and 1973.
Engineers desired a sizeable flat region on Mars since coping with a perfect landing near mountains or canyons was beyond their abilities. NASA chose Ares Vallis, a large outflow canal from a previous flood, and the mission successfully landed there.
Sojourner, NASA's first rover, slid down a landing ramp in 1997 and has since become the principal cellular Mars robotic. Jennifer Trosper was in charge of the expedition until the rover died on September 27, 1997.
NASA launched two spacecraft to Mars in 1998 and 1999, one to circle the planet and the other to settle near one of its poles. Both were unsuccessful. After being let down, NASA decided to build a rover and a backup for its next attempt.
As a result, the twins, Spirit and Opportunity, were born. They significantly improved over Sojourner, each the size of a golf cart.
Each rover possessed a robotic arm, a significant advancement in rover evolution that allowed the robots to do more advanced research. They had upgraded cameras, three spectrometers, and a tool for grinding into rocks to show the texture under the surface.
Spirit and Opportunity, NASA's twin rovers, were launched several weeks apart in 2003. Spirit was the first to arrive on Mars, and it froze on its 18th Martian day on the surface.
Opportunity safely landed on the far side of the globe from Spirit. Both rovers outlasted their three-month lifespans by years. And both accomplished substantially more Martian science than was expected.
In 2004, the Mars rover Opportunity discovered the first convincing evidence of previous liquid water on the planet. After years of traveling, the rover arrived at Endeavour crater and "entered into a whole new world," according to Abigail Fraeman.
Opportunity's odometer read 26.2 miles (42.2 km) in 2015, and mission controllers celebrated by affixing a marathon medal to a mock-up of the rover and driving it across a finish line ribbon at JPL. Opportunity died in 2019 when a violent dust storm covered the sun and cut off solar power.
The twin rovers were a significant improvement over Sojourner. The second rover, though, was a whole other beast.
By the mid-2000s, NASA had concluded that it needed to go big on Mars, with a megarover the size of an SUV. The one-ton Curiosity was so hefty that engineers had to devise a new landing method to lower the rover to the ground slowly on Mars. The "sky crane" mechanism floated above the surface of Mars and used retro-rockets to slowly lower the rover to the ground.
Curiosity successfully landed in August 2012 on Mount Sharp, a 5-kilometer-high mass of sediment in Gale crater. It detected organic compounds in various rocks, indicating that these settings have been habitable for millions of years.
Curiosity trundles on ten years into its mission, finding fresh discoveries as it approaches the slopes of Mount Sharp. It detected sporadically drifting methane gas inside Gale crater, a mystery that geologic events might cause.
Curiosity just left a place with a lot of clay and is now going into a place with more sulfates.
This transformation might result from a dramatic change in the Martian climate billions of years ago. Early on, Spirit damaged one of its wheels and had to travel backward, dragging the broken wheel behind it.
Opportunity became the Energizer Bunny of rovers, endlessly exploring and refusing to die. Spirit discovered rocks that looked to have been changed by water long ago and subsequently found two iron-rich meteorites. On its maiden voyage to Mars in 2004, the Mars rover Opportunity "entered into a whole new planet."
It discovered the first conclusive evidence of previous liquid water on Mars, an influential and much-anticipated finding. Opportunity traveled further than any rover on any alien globe, shattering the lunar record held by a Soviet rover.
Opportunity's odometer read 26.2 miles (42.2 km) in 2015, and mission controllers celebrated by affixing a marathon medal to a mock-up of the rover and driving it across a finish line ribbon. Opportunity died in 2019 when a violent dust storm covered the sun and cut off solar power.
NASA's first four rovers laid the groundwork for Perseverance, the most successful and nimble rover yet to visit Mars. Trosper compares machine progress to the growth of children.
Now we have a preschooler in Sojourner, followed by your happy-go-lucky kids in Spirit and Alternative, Curiosity is a younger adult who can accomplish many things on her own, and Perseverance is kind of that highpowered midprofession who can do just about everything you want with really no questions.
Perseverance is essentially a copy of Curiosity built from its spare parts but with one significant difference: a mechanism for drilling, collecting, and storing thin rock cores.
Perseverance's objective is to collect Martian rock samples for future missions to bring back to Earth in what may be the significant robotic pattern return from Mars. This may allow scientists to conduct sophisticated analysis of Martian rocks in their earthbound laboratories. "It seems much more like we're doing something for the next age than previous missions," Siebach adds.
The rover is moving fast. Unlike Curiosity, which took its time exploring the Gale crater, Perseverance has been zipping around its landing site, the 45-kilometer-wide Jezero crater, since its arrival in February 2021.
It has gathered ten rock cores and is already looking for a location to lay them down on the floor for future missions to pick up.
We're going to bring samples from a variety of regions again. As a result, we will stick to a timetable.
Says Caltech mission scientist Kenneth Farley.
Perseverance traveled to Jezero to examine an old river delta with layers of material that may include evidence of previous Martian life. The rover, however, narrowly missed its target, landing on the other side of a pair of impossible dunes.
As a result, it spent the most of its first year examining the crater bottom, which turned out to be made of igneous rocks (SN: 9/11/21, p. 32). The rocks had cooled from molten lava and were not the expected sedimentary rocks.
Scientists on Earth will be able to precisely date the age of the igneous rocks based on the radioactive decay of chemical components inside them, providing the first direct confirmation for the period of rocks from a specific location on Mars.
On July 7, Perseverance gathered its ninth rock core, barely the size of a pinky finger. Future missions will bring the preserved samples back to Earth for study.
The rover raced towards the delta as soon as it finished examining the crater ground in March. Every subsequent NASA rover has improved its autonomous driving skills, allowing it to identify dangers, navigate around them, and keep on without set mismanagement instructions.
Perseverance has its computer processor to do computations for autonomous navigation, allowing it to move faster than Curiosity. (It took Curiosity two and a half years to reach 10 kilometers; Perseverance went that distance in little over a year.) "The rover drives almost every minute te can offer," Farley explains.
Perseverance achieved a Martian driving record in April, traveling over 5 kilometers in only 30 Martian days. If all goes well, it will go up and down the delta, then to the rim of Jezero crater and out into the usual plains past.
Perseverance has a sidekick named Ingenuity, the main helicopter leading to another globe. Hardly half a meter tall, the agile flyer, outperformed its creators' most fantastic dreams.
The helicopter flew 29 times in its first 16 months, despite being only expected to fly five times every month. It has mapped out the rover's future courses and scientific objectives. Future rovers are almost sure to have a tiny little buddy like this.
During a 2019 test, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory analyzes light on the Perseverance rover. The rover arrived on Mars last year and has been investigating there.
While the United States has led the way in Mars rover exploration, it is not the only player on the field. In May 2021, China became the second country to land a rover on Mars successfully. Its Zhurong rover, named for a legendary hearth deity, has been exploring half of Utopia Planitia, a large basin in the planet's northern hemisphere.
The landing location is near a geologic barrier, which might represent an ancient Martian coastline. Unlike the other Mars rover landing sites, Zhurong's is billions of years old, "so we're researching a unique world on Mars," says Lu Pan, a planetary scientist at the University of Copenhagen who has cooperated with Zhurong scientists.
Zhurong mimics Spirit and Alternative in dimension and movement in certain respects. It has cameras, a laser spectrometer for studying rocks, and ground-penetrating radar for probing subterranean soil formations.
After landing, Zhurong took images of its rock-strewn surroundings before heading south to uncover a diverse variety of geologic terrains, including strange cones that seem to be mud volcanoes and ridges that appear to be windblown dunes.
In May, mission operators turned Zhurong into sleep mode for the Martian winter, hoping it would awaken in December at the end of the season. It has already moved over two kilometers across the floor, greatly exceeding Sojourner's modest 100 meters.
On June 11, 2021, the China National Space Administration released this image of Zhurong with its landing pad on Mars.
The Mars rovers, from Sojourner to Zhurong, demonstrate what humanity can do on another planet. Future rovers might use the European Area Company's ExoMars, albeit its launch in 2022 has been delayed due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Standing there in Florida, watching this rocket go off and feeling it in your chest and comprehending that there's this delicate technological equipment hurtling on the tip of this rocket,
Vasavada recalled the Curiosity launch in 2011.
"It just gave me the feeling that right here, folks, we're firing this thing off into the home," he adds. "We're just small little humans transmitting this material to another world."
NASA began researching Mars from space in the 1960s, even though most people's attention was focused on the moon landing at the time.
The rover's first discoveries include that the Martian soil at Utopia Planitia is similar to desert sands on Earth and that water was present there maybe as recently as 700 million years ago.
Following the invasion, Europe stopped all research partnerships with Russia and launching of ExoMars on a Russian rocket.