NASA is passing round the champagne and not in an attempt to say goodbye to Woolworths but instead they are celebrating because they have remained a presence on the Red Planet, Mars, for a full five years.
NASA originally sent a robot in 2004, called Spirit, to the planet which was later joined by its brother, Opportunity, 21 days later. The robots were only expected to last for 3 months, however they have carried on operating to the astonishment of everyone at NASA.
“The American taxpayer was told three months for each rover was the prime mission plan. The twins have worked almost 20 times that long. That’s an extraordinary return of investment in these challenging budgetary times,” claimed the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Ed Weiler.
Since it’s landing, Spirit has traveled 4.7 miles and has recently been holding its own against the harsh Martian winter. Both rovers have recorded over 36 Gigabytes of information including having taken millions of pictures. NASA are claiming that the strong winds on Mars are a part of why the rovers have lasted so long as the winds are blowing the dust off the robots. Still, NASA say that the rovers are in dire need of a good cleaning as the solar panels are so dirty they are hardly providing any power.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory project manager for the two robots, John Callas, said, “These rovers are incredibly resilient considering the extreme environment the hardware experiences every day. 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.”
Callas added that, “This last winter was a squeaker for Spirit. We just made it through.”
The principal investigator for the robot’s science instruments, Steve Squyres, believes that the robots have discovered what could appear to be a volcanic explosion crate, which he claims has never been seen before.
Squyres highlights the aims of the missions as having a huge social impact for everyone here on Earth, by saying, “The journeys have been motivated by science, but have led to something else important. This has turned into humanity’s first overland expedition on another planet. When people look back on this period of Mars exploration decades from now, Spirit and Opportunity may be considered most significant not for the science they accomplished, but for the first time we truly went exploring across the surface of Mars.”
Unfortunately Spirit has a broken wheel and so has to travel everywhere backwards, and the problems are only set to get worse over time. Opportunity isn’t in much better shape as the robots arm has a malfunctioning arm due to a damaged wire. NASA will not be looking forward to the day that these two robots go offline as their next surface mission will not be until 2011.