On This Day

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The interior of a crater surrounding the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity at Meridiani Planum on Mars can be seen in this color image taken Jan. 25, 2004, from the rover’s panoramic camera.

On This Day: Second NASA Rover Lands on Mars

January 25, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 25, 2004, the NASA rover Opportunity landed on Mars. It joined its twin, Spirit, which had landed three weeks earlier.

Opportunity Rover Lands on Mars

In the summer of 2003, the NASA Mars Exploration Rover mission sent two rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, to Mars to examine its geology and search for signs of water.

The Spirit landed successfully on the Meridiani Planum of Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, but NASA scientists lost contact with it on Jan. 21. The apparent failure of the Spirit, coming just a month after the European Space Agency lost contact with its Mars lander, was a disappointing development in exploration of Mars.

NASA regained contact with the Spirit on Jan. 23; two days later, the Opportunity landed in the Gusev Crater, on the opposite side of the planet from the Spirit. “We resurrected one rover and we saw the birth of another,” declared NASA associate administrator Ed Weiler. “This was one heck of a critical milestone.”

Though the Spirit and Opportunity were originally planned to spend three months on Mars, both rovers remain on Mars as of January 2011. Spirit has been stuck in a sand trap since May 2009 and might not be able to ever escape, but Opportunity is still functioning well.

The Rovers have each found evidence that there was once water on the planet, and traveled approximately 13 miles. “This has turned into humanity's first overland expedition on another planet,” said Steve Squyres, an investigator for the mission. “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.”

Background: The ESA’s Beagle II Mars Expression

Weeks before NASA’s rovers landed, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Expression mission attempted to drop the Beagle II lander onto the surface of the planet. On Christmas Day, the lander, programmed to send signals back to the Mars Express mother ship, was silent.

However, the Mars Express mother ship successfully entered into orbit around the planet, and scientist Colin Pillinger said, “I'm afraid it's a bit disappointing, but it's not the end of the world.”

Opinion: Putting Man on Mars

In light of NASA’s success with the two rovers, European scientists began planning a series of missions to Mars working toward landing humans on Mars over the course of 30 years. Although many are eager for the first humans to take steps on Mars, British scientist Colin Pillinger questioned whether it would “be right for us to tamper with the ecology on another body.” He said, “My opinion is that it probably wouldn't.”

Working toward a similar goal, the Mars Society, a privately funded group, has set up three stations, called Mars Bases on Earth, which simulate life on the red planet. The group’s leader believes that humans can reach the planet “in 10 years for $10bn.”

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