Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity 2004

Thomas D. Le

MER Opportunity Landing Site 2004

Halfway around Mars and 6,600 miles from Gusev Crater, where the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit landed on January 3, 2004, its twin the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity touched down on the flat plain Meridiana Planum, on Saturday, January 24, 2004, after sending a signal at 9:05 p.m. PST to the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory via the NASA Deep Space Network, which was listening with antennas in California and Australia. Meridiana Planum has an Oklahoma-size deposit of gray hematite, an iron oxide that usually forms in water on Earth but could also result from volcanic activity. Opportunity is sitting in a shallow crater about 22 meters (66 feet) across and 3 meters deep, which scientists figure it could easily climb out of. During descent its bottom camera also obtained an image of a 150-yard wide crater about half a mile away, which could be a target for examination. Within two weeks, controllers anticipate sending the rover to an outcrop of bedrock about 8 meters (26 feet) northwest of the lander.

"We're on Mars, everybody!" said JPL's Rob Manning, manager of the mission Entry, Descent and Landing, announcing the successful arrival on Mars of NASA's second exploration rover. Opportunity came to rest on one of the three side petals of its airbag-encased four-sided lander after several minutes of bouncing on the planet's surface. About four hours after landing, the rover began to send the first black-and-white pictures of its surroundings via the Mars Odyssey orbiter circling above, to the delight all the scientists in mission control.

The first pictures received depicted such a totally unexpected and intriguing landscape that Dr. Steven Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for the science instruments on both rovers, confessed to being flabbergasted. The deputy project manager Richard Cook chimed in, "The pictures just blow me away. We've certainly not been to this place before." Another project scientist, Dr. Larry Soderblom of the United States Geological Survey, called Opportunity's landing site "Martian pay dirt." Other characterizations were the Holy Grail, a treasure trove.

What the pictures show is a terrain covered with fine talcum-like dust, dark chocolate-brown soil, pebbles and gravel, no large rocks, which characterize the hitherto known martian landscape. Impressions of airbags on the terrain are clearly visible. However, where the airbags touched the soil, the pebbles have disappeared, prompting conflicting theories. One scientist thinks that the airbags have embedded them out of sight into the soil, while another believes they are but clumps of dust that the airbags have pulverized.

The crater rim obscures Opportunity's view of most of the landscape; but where the rim is low enough, the picture reveals a flat featureless horizon. One high-resolution image captured by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity's panoramic camera highlights a portion of the puzzling rock outcropping that scientists eagerly wait to investigate. Opportunity is on its lander facing northeast; the outcropping lies to the northwest. These layered rocks measure only 10 centimeters (4 inches) tall and are thought to be either volcanic ash deposits or sediments carried by water or wind.

So far Opportunity has been in good health, except for a 15-watt power loss believed to be caused by the heater in the robotic arm not shutting down at night, a condition which scientists continue to monitor. The heater could become an issue if it reduced the rover's ability to recharge its batteries. As of January 30, the rover has finally stood on its six wheels ready to roll off the lander. Engineers have lowered the ramp further down to facilitate egress, which is considered always to be a risky maneuver.

Opportunity rolled 10 feet onto the martian surface on command sent by engineers at 3:12 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, Saturday, January 31. Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory received confirmation of the successful drive at 3:01 a.m. Pacific Standard Time via a relay from the Mars Odyssey orbiter and Earth reception by the Deep Space Network.While on the lander the rover had used its mini-thermal emissions spectrometer, an instrument that measures infrared radiation, to spy gray hematite near its landing site. Elated scientists confirmed that hematite had indeed been identified.


NASA has made the decision to commemorate the death eighteen years ago of the seven Challenger shuttle crew. Seconds after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 28, 1986, Challenger exploded. On January 28, 2004, NASA named Opportunity's landing site, Meridiani Planum, "Challenger Memorial Station," reminding us of the thin line separating success and tragedy in space exploration.

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity

On 24 January 2004, shortly after 9:05 pm, Pacific Standard Time, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, Spirit's twin, joined its sister robot after a successful landing on Mars, in an unprecedented achievement in the history of Mars exploration. Touching down 6,600 miles from Gusev Crater, clear across the other side of the planet, Opportunity spent just one week preparing for leaving its lander, after which time it begins examining the crater in which it landed, and the rock outcropping nearby. The rock outcropping just 8 meters away has been termed a Holy Grail, for its promise of a rich source of information on Martian geology. On January 31, Opportunity rolled off its lander. It is now ready to do science work, joining forces with its twin Spirit now operating on the opposite side of Mars.

Mars Odyssey Orbiter

Launched on 7 April 2001, arrived in orbit around Mars on 24 October 2001, Mars 2001 Odyssey Obiter is to conduct Mars Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE) and Global Mapping by using the Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS) and the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS). The MARIE maps radiation environment near Mars, which is important to the safety of future human explorers. The GRS determines the composition of permanent polar caps and seasonal thickness of the polar caps, surface elemental (chemical) abundance, and the surface distribution of water. THEMIS identifies temperature anomalies of vocanic areas and hydrothermal environments as well as rock mineralogy that will help identify past aqueous environments.

Mars Global Surveyor

Coming on the heels of Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Global Surveyor achieved orbit around Mars on 11 September 1997. For the next eighteen months or so Mars Global Surveyor will be maneuvered into a circular orbit through aerobraking to commence a two-year global mapping of the Martian surface in March 1999. This mapping includes determining geological processes and history through 3m resolution imaging, mineral mapping at 3 km resolution, and altimetic and magnetic field mapping. Magnetospheric processes are also revealed by magnetic field mapping. Atmospheric circulation is revealed by measuriing atmospheric temperature and pressure profiles. On January 4, 2004, the orbiter has helped to relay Mars Exploration Rover Spirit messages to mission control at JPL.

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