Robot Launched to Find Traces of Water on Mars

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida, June 10, 2003 (ENS) - The first of a pair of robotic geologists blasted off for Mars from Cape Canaveral atop a Delta II launch vehicle this afternoon, on a mission to reveal the role of water on Mars.

A second rover mission, bound for a different site on Mars, will launch as soon as June 25. The identical robots see sharper images, can explore farther and examine rocks better than anything that has ever landed on Mars, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The first robot will arrive at Mars on January 4, 2004, the second on January 25. Plans call for each to operate for at least three months. robot

Artist's vision of a MER rover on Mars (Image courtesy NASA)
"We see the twin rovers as stepping stones for the rest of the decade and to a future decade of Mars exploration that will ultimately provide the knowledge necessary for human exploration," said Orlando Figueroa, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters in Washington.

The two rolling robotic rovers are carrying the hopes of scientists who have worked on the MER project. "We will be using the rovers to find rocks and soils that could hold clues about wet environments of Mars' past," said Dr. Cathy Weitz, Mars Exploration Rover (MER) program scientist "We'll analyze the clues to assess whether those environments may have been conducive to life."

"The instrumentation onboard these rovers, combined with their great mobility, will offer a totally new view of Mars, including a microscopic view inside rocks for the first time," said Dr. Ed Weiler, associate administrator for space science from his office at NASA headquarters.

Missions to Mars have been more hazardous than missions to other planets, Weiler says. "Historically, two out of three missions, from all countries who have tried to land on Mars, ended in failure. We have done everything we can to ensure our rovers have the best chance of success."

"We have plenty of challenges ahead, but this launch went so well, we're delighted," said JPL's Pete Theisinger, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover missions at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. "The rovers will use innovations to aid in safe landings, but risks remain."

The rovers will bounce to landings cushioned by airbags at sites that NASA scientists have selected as offering a balance of favorable conditions for safe landings and interesting science. Each six wheeled robot has a deck of solar panels, about the size of a kitchen table, for power. The rovers can watch for hazards and maneuver around them.

Each robot has panoramic camera at human eye height, and a miniature thermal emission spectrometer with infrared vision, to help scientists identify the most interesting rocks.

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The rock abrasion tool on the robotic arm grinds away the rock's surface, allowing scientific instruments to analyze the rock's interior. (Image courtesy NASA)
The rover drives to the selected rock and extends an arm with tools on the end, NASA explains. Then, a microscopic imager, like a geologist's hand lens, gives a closeup view of the rock's texture. Two spectrometers identify the composition of the rock. The fourth tool substitutes for a geologist's hammer. It exposes the fresh interior of a rock by scraping away the weathered surface layer.

The designated site for the first mission is Gusev Crater. The second rover will go to a site called Meridiani Planum.

"Gusev and Meridiani give us two different types of evidence about liquid water in Mars' history," said Dr. Joy Crisp, MER project scientist at JPL. "Gusev appears to have been a crater lake. The channel of an ancient riverbed indicates water flowed right into it. Meridiani has a large deposit of gray hematite, a mineral that usually forms in a wet environment," Crisp said.

The rover launched today is known as "Spirit" and the second rover to be launched later this month is called "Opportunity." They were named by Sofi Collis, a third grade student from Scottsdale, Arizona.

Collis was born in Siberia. At age two, she was adopted by Laurie Collis and brought to the United States. Hers essay naming the rovers was selected from nearly 10,000 entries in the contest sponsored by NASA and the Lego Company, with collaboration from the Planetary Society of Pasadena.

At a ceremony Sunday at Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center, Sofi read her essay, "I used to live in an orphanage," she said. "It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the 'Spirit' and the 'Opportunity.'"

"She has in her heritage and upbringing the soul of two great spacefaring countries," said NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. "One of NASA's goals is to inspire the next generation of explorers. Sofi is a wonderful example of how that next generation also inspires us."