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NASA Mars Space Science

NASA Mars Rovers Hit 5-Year Anniversary 147

Posted by Soulskill
from the exceeding-expectation dept.
An anonymous reader writes "NASA's Mars rovers have been on the red planet for five years now. The rovers were originally planned to stay operational on the planet for only 90 days, but it has turned into a much longer mission than anticipated. NASA has put together a video to celebrate the anniversary. The rovers have made important discoveries about wet and violent environments on ancient Mars. They also have returned a quarter-million images, driven more than 21 kilometers (13 miles), climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with sand traps and aging hardware, survived dust storms, and relayed more than 36 gigabytes of data via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To date, the rovers remain operational for new campaigns the team has planned for them."
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NASA Mars Rovers Hit 5-Year Anniversary

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  • by Shakrai (717556) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @01:07PM (#26312281) Journal

    and relayed more than 36 gigabytes of data via

    Seems a little slow. Maybe Obama can extend some broadband lines to Mars and bring them into the 21st century? ;)

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Cally (10873)
      Most of that's relayed via MRO and Mars Odyssey. As others have remarked elsewhere, the drips and drops of data from MER is lost in the firehose from MRO. (Ever pulled a JP2 of HiRISE data? Those things are VAST. Here's a random example [arizona.edu].) Incidentally the IAS quick-viewer is the third useful client-side Java application ever written, according to this book I just made up.
    • 8*2^40/(5*365.24*86400) ~= 55747.8 bits/sec avg

      Hey man, 56k modems were never that bad! (pedantic: note the limitation to something like 52kb in the US)

    • that's still pretty impressive considering the latency.
    • You think that's slow?

      It took 5 years to travel 13 miles, a garden slug would have been able to travel over 100 times that distance in the same time (although it may not last that long in the same environment).
      • You can't control the rover in real time. The control signals take several minutes to reach Mars from Earth. The mission people have to plan and map the course of the rover a small piece at a time carefully. You don't just throw it into reverse instantly when you run into a large rock or get stuck in the sand....
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 03, 2009 @01:07PM (#26312283)

    Supposed to be finished in 90 days, ends up taking 5 years.

    • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

      by zappepcs (820751)

      Actually, they did complete in 90 days, but since the hardware didn't die, they kept going with the project. Today is a day that the design team can sit back, kick their feet up and know they did a damned good job. This is an awesome achievement. Anyone who has built a robot will tell you that keeping those rovers alive for such a long time in a harsh environment is a huge achievement. The team that worked this project, dealing with the rovers 24/7 should be proud. Imagine, 5 years of knowing that if you ma

    • by Don_dumb (927108)
      Nice. Reminds me why I don't block ACs altogether.
    • by Concerned Onlooker (473481) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @02:49PM (#26313033) Homepage Journal
      Minor point if you're not all that into it, but I believe the projected mission was 90 Martian days, or sols as they call them. Not Earth days. With a Martian day being about 24 hours, 37 minutes (sidereal) that makes the mission projected length a little over 92 Earth days. So, as I said, it's a minor point. :-)
  • Fascinating (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JackassJedi (1263412) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @01:14PM (#26312329)
    It's still so unbelievable to me that we actually have a satellite and stationary vehicles on another planet and are using them to do stuff there. If you really think about this for a moment in terms of what has to be accomplished for this to work it's just mind-blowing.
    • Re:Fascinating (Score:5, Interesting)

      by BZWingZero (1119881) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @02:09PM (#26312677)
      Not only do we have landers, rovers, and satellites around another planet, but we can coordinate them so one of the orbiting satellites can take a picture of a lander as it is landing!

      A photo from Mars Odyssey (satellite) taking a picture of Mars Phoenix Lander with enough detail to see the parachute shroud lines can be found here [spaceflightnow.com]
      • by pha3r0 (1210530)

        You know first time i saw that picture was when the article was published. Some AC here actually griped about how much money was spent on the project and how "low quality" the picture was.

        This is an awesome feat and we should be very proud of the fine engineers and scientists that allow us all to experience such amazing finds.

      • by dave420 (699308)
        Not to mention taking the first picture of the Earth from another planet. Fuck.
    • Just wanted to speak up in agreement with your post. Our robots are taking over the solar system :)

    • Re:Fascinating (Score:4, Insightful)

      by couchslug (175151) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @03:24PM (#26313299)

      Imagine how much more we could have accomplished by using robot probes instead of wasting money on primitive systems like the Space Shuttle. We could send robot after robot after robot and leave the tourists at home for a few decades.

      • Re:Fascinating (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Kjella (173770) on Sunday January 04, 2009 @12:08AM (#26317109) Homepage

        In a way you're right, but it's also a bit like "Well, I haven't actually been to Africa but I saw a documentary on National Geographic. Gee, how much money I saved." I really doubt JFK would have gotten the same effect if he promised to send a lump of electronics to the Moon and back either. Part of the reason Mars is so interesting is exactly because it's fairly Earth-like, and why would we care about that if only robots would ever go there? I can't speak for anyone else but I want humans in space.

        I think establishment of a permanent colony outside Earth would be pretty much the greatest achivement in human history ever. For that we need three things:
        1) The ability to bring fragile little meatbags from Earth to Mars
        2) The ability for fragile little meatbags to survive on Mars
        3) The ability to mostly support itself without supplies from Earth

        Obviously, we're well short on 3) but certainly we could get some experience on 1) and 2) with a manned Mars mission. A lot fo people seem to think "Well, we did that on the Moon so what's the big deal sending guys to sit in a bunker and eat canned food?" Well we've never done it. Not going to for a while either, it seems. But if we stopped with manned flight, how much would it take to revive it? Like if we wanted to return to the moon we wouldn't break out a few Apollo rockets from storage, we'd have to start over.

        NASA didn't pick a "primitive system" on purpose, they picked what looked like the best choice at the time. Like pretty much everything else you do of early experimentation it probably wasn't the best one. That's how you learn, how you build better crafts, after all if you can't reasonably keep people healthy and alive in near orbit you sure aren't going to make it out to Mars. How about some experience in orbital construction like the ISS? After all, a Mars launcher might be built in space from modules. In short, what you call "space tourist" is what I call "Our home base on the outskirts of Earth's gravity well." We're going to want people up there if we ever want to get anywhere further.

        • by Fluffeh (1273756)

          "Well, I haven't actually been to Africa but I saw a documentary on National Geographic. Gee, how much money I saved."

          Correct me if I am wrong, but lets say I know nothing about any other culture or country and I just want to learn. Might it not be a better idea to spend a few thousand dollars buying hundreds of documentaries, listening to David Attenborough talk and discuss and getting an overall picture of what is around rather than spending that same money and seeing the african tourist trail from the back of a banged up jeep?

          Now, if we were to dispense with the imagery for a moment, don't you think that the money sp

          • I guess it really depends on what you seeing the end goal as being. I see people as mostly fitting into one of three viewpoints when it comes to space exploration.

            1. Space exploration is a waste of money and effort, we should focus on what happens on earth.
            2. The roll of space exploration should be to learn more about our universe, we can probably learn more faster and cheaper if we focus on robotic exploration.
            3. The earth is getting crowded fast and our ability to harm our environment is continually inc

            • by Fluffeh (1273756)
              I actually fall between two and one in your points. I am all for learning all we can about the place and progressing our knowledge, so a strong supporter of point two. Now, I did say that I sort of fall into point one, not so much in terms of that I think space exploration is a waste, I am utterly the opposite of that, but I think we should be looking at what happens on earth. I just do not see that there has to be a relationship between us learning to manage our world and learning to reach for the stars.
      • We could send robot after robot after robot...

        ... until the planet hits it's preset robot kill limit and shuts down?

        Sorry, it had been too long in this space related article without a Futurama joke.

      • by Carnildo (712617)

        Imagine how much more we could have accomplished by using robot probes instead of wasting money on primitive systems like the Space Shuttle. We could send robot after robot after robot and leave the tourists at home for a few decades.

        Imagine how much more we could have accomplished by sending a trained geologist. The data collection done by both rovers over the course of five years is about as much as a single grad student could do in a week.

    • by Fluffeh (1273756)

      It's still so unbelievable to me that we actually have a satellite and stationary vehicles on another planet and are using them to do stuff there. If you really think about this for a moment in terms of what has to be accomplished for this to work it's just mind-blowing.

      In other news grandpa, the war ended, the kids really DID put crackers in your letterbox, people DO walk on your lawn when you aren't looking, oh, and yes, I did pinch your false teeth out of the glass next to your bed one day to scare my dentist. Also, happy eighty-seventh birthday!

      /disengage_smartass_mode

  • This is a perfect example of the best that America has to offer. The people who built these rovers obviously knew they only needed to last 90 days yet obviously they built them to last as long as possible. This makes me proud to be a member of the most advanced country on earth, even setting aside the misguided leadership we've endured for 8 years and are about to be liberated from.
    • by Forty Two Tenfold (1134125) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @01:22PM (#26312385)

      This is a perfect example of the best that America has to offer.

      The people who built these rovers were not all "American."

      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        This is a perfect example of the best that America has to offer.

        The people who built these rovers were not all "American."

        This is a perfect example of the best that America has to offer.

      • The people who built these rovers were not all "American."

        Did we coordinate the mission and enable a group of bright people to make something like this happen? Yes, of course we did. That's MORE American (in the real spirit of the Country) than some xenophobic team of wasps who have never stepped foot out of the US doing the work.

      • Please read carefully. No where did I say Americans, as in people. Rather, I referred to the "attitude" the American Spirit, which are attitudes that can and are adopted by people from international countries who move the the United States AND ASSIMILATE HERE. So, a Russian software developer from the small Russian town of Kolpino could come here and exhibit the "American Can Do Spirit". In fact, living as I do in Brighton Beach, I daily see examples of ethnic Russians doing exactly that, having their own b
    • by nickdc (1444247)
      Well with the price tag of this rover, I expect it to outlast the human race! Although I still think it's pretty cool that it's running, Kudos!
    • by repka (1102731)

      Let's see how the new leadership will look at further spending for space programs after the current one has led everyone to reconsider the role of the US as a world's savings bank.

    • by Fluffeh (1273756)

      makes me proud to be a member of the most advanced country on earth

      Not to rain on your parade here mate, but have you actually gone abroad? Take a visit through a few countries, maybe parts of Japan, Belgium, Norway, Denmark or Germany and have a good look around. I think you would be quite amazed at what you see there.

      That aside I do hope that the next president lives up to expectations. America needs some true leadership again. Besides, the world needs America to have some true leadership again.

  • by Murphy(c) (41125) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @01:32PM (#26312435)

    5 Years on an other planet, think about it.
    Imagine the amount of food, water, O2 and energy that would have been required if they had sent humans instead of machines.

    Never mind the fact that they extended the original mission by more than 2000% and the fact that they never needed resupply missions.

    When you read the mission reports for the ISS and see that they need a two man crew just to keep stuff from breaking too badly, it's hard to imagine the size of the crew that would be needed for a 5 year mission to Mars.

    Yet one of the two (ISS vs Mars rovers), has a budget at least one order of magnitude larger than the other and has yet to produce any real science (unless teeing off a gold plated golf ball from the ISS [latimes.com] is ones idea of science)

    Murphy(c)

    • by Kindaian (577374)

      Nope but i guess that someone would like to use parts of ISS as an industrial base for making things that are impossible on earth... ;)

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Biff Stu (654099)

        People have been talking about manufacturing in orbit for decades. Instead, manufacturing moved to China. The motivation for the move to East Asia mirrors the reason why space manufacturing remains just talk. If you consider the overhead and transportation costs of manufacturing in orbit, it makes unionized factories in the US and Europe look dirt cheap.

    • by Rinikusu (28164) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @02:07PM (#26312665)

      Actually, when compared to humans, it's not that great. A human could've crossed that 12 miles in a day. Humans can scale that "mountain" and the "crater" in a matter of minutes. Basically, a Human team could've done the entire 5 year mission (so far) in less than a couple days. In fact, with a geologist on board, they probably could've done even more science as other opportunites presented themselves.

      • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Actually, when compared to humans, it's not that great. A human could've crossed that 12 miles in a day. Humans can scale that "mountain" and the "crater" in a matter of minutes. Basically, a Human team could've done the entire 5 year mission (so far) in less than a couple days. In fact, with a geologist on board, they probably could've done even more science as other opportunites presented themselves.

        Assuming they weren't on the same orbital trajectory as the Climate Orbiter:

        The Mars Climate Orbiter was intended to enter orbit at an altitude of 140â"150 km above Mars. However, a navigation error caused the spacecraft to reach as low as 57 km. The spacecraft was destroyed by atmospheric stresses and friction at this low altitude

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Climate_Orbiter

        Kind of hard to do geological research when you're extra crispy.

        I think that's the ultimate (and good) long-term goal, but the first stepping stones is to give up on the ISS and funnel things into human habitation on Luna. Make mistakes three days away instead of six months away.

      • by grumbel (592662) <grumbel@gmx.de> on Saturday January 03, 2009 @02:56PM (#26313089) Homepage

        How many rovers could you have send to Mars for the price of a human mission? Around a thousand or so I think, puts things into perspective.

        • How many launch pads do you have to use for those thousand rovers to be launched within a reasonable time span? Note that Mars is not always the same distance from the Earth, so you don't want to space out the launches.

          There's no real rush to learning about Mars, but let's not take forever either. That doesn't mean a manned mission, mind you, just that let's not do a thousand rovers either. Money is valuable, but so is time.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by benevixit (754447)
        Point taken, but if science is our goal then our performance metric should be discoveries achieved per dollar spent.

        The Mars Exploration Rover mission cost less than $1 billion total. In contemporary dollars the Apollo program cost $150-200 billion (and going to Mars would be WAY tougher than the Moon). Imagine - the price of a human mission we could fill the solar system with squadrons of rovers. The numbers are rough, but they suggest that we can get more science for our buck with robots.
        • Imagine - the price of a human mission we could fill the solar system with squadrons of rovers. The numbers are rough, but they suggest that we can get more science for our buck with robots.

          Another important factor to keep in mind is time. Offhand, I'd guess that a manned Mars mission would take about 10-20 years from initiating the mission to the first footfall on Mars. If you look at complex aerospace programs they take a very long time to put together. The shuttle took around 13 years (studies began in

      • Humans would have also known to pack a sand wedge to deal with those sand traps more effectively.

        In fact, with a geologist on board, they probably could've done even more science as other opportunites presented themselves.

        You mean like "Hey! This planet is made of rock, lucky we packed that geologist!". I think they would have seen that coming.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Imagine the amount of food, water, O2 and energy that would have been required if they had sent humans instead of machines.

      The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right! -- Larry Niven

      Personally I think the ISS is a waste of resource. If we're going to spend resources on human exploration lets at least spend it on the moon (and perhaps something at L1).

      Anything beyond that should be robotic while we gain experience with people's safety.

    • by daigu (111684) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @02:22PM (#26312783) Journal

      Perhaps part of the ISS science is figuring out the engineering and logistical problems of how human's can live for extended periods in space, which is a much harder problem. I'd say getting something so big into orbit, operational and supporting an onboard crew for more than 8 years is a significant accomplishment.

    • Imagine the amount of food, water, O2 and energy that would have been required if they had sent humans instead of machines.

      Since humans could have accomplished what took the rovers five years in a few days, imagine how much more science could have been done with humans on site for five years.

      What truly boggles my mind is that people are impressed that a robot has done in five years what a man could do in a day or two.

      • For the foreseeable future, it's robots or nothing. Your "man" is a paper tiger. It's just not going to happen. There is no political will for a manned mission, and the price of one is too high. If we're lucky, the NASA budget will stay roughly level for the next few years. The only way to get any science out of that is to do it on the cheap - robotically.
    • by rk (6314)

      On the other hand, the rovers took 90 sols to do what a competent geologist with similar equipment on the scene could do in an afternoon. Assuming a 90-to-1 capability ratio, the rovers have done about three weeks of equivalent work. I think there is a place for manned exploration of space. On the gripping hand, it probably will cost at least 90 times as much to get that geologist to Mars when the time comes.

      Not bagging on the rovers, especially since I work in the lab that operates Mini-TES [asu.edu], so yay unman

  • Does anyone know if the rover cameras can look upward? Could they see Phobos or Deimos clearly from the surface? Or is the atmosphere too dusty? That would be a pretty cool photo. According to "Shawn Of The Dead," dogs can't look up. 'Rover' might have a problem then.
  • Yes but (Score:2, Funny)

    by Subm (79417)

    The rovers have made important discoveries about wet and violent environments on ancient Mars. They also have returned a quarter-million images, driven more than 21 kilometers (13 miles), climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with sand traps and aging hardware, survived dust storms, and relayed more than 36 gigabytes of data via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To date, the rovers remain operational for new campaigns the team has planned for them

    Yes, but do they run linux?

  • by bubbaprog (783125) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @01:50PM (#26312567)
    I would argue, or at least allow for the argument, that the Mars Rovers have been the second-most successful accomplishment of NASA after Apollo 11.
  • 90 days? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Saturday January 03, 2009 @01:55PM (#26312597)
    I'd like to point out that the engineers designing the rovers probably expected them to last longer than that (though certainly not 5 years). They probably budgeted for 90 days to keep the projected costs down so that NASA would chose the project. They knew that the budget would be extended once the rovers were there.
    • Re:90 days? (Score:5, Informative)

      by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @05:03PM (#26314069) Homepage

      I'd like to point out that the engineers designing the rovers probably expected them to last longer than that (though certainly not 5 years). They probably budgeted for 90 days to keep the projected costs down so that NASA would chose the project. They knew that the budget would be extended once the rovers were there.

      A lot of people seem to believe this, but it's really not true. I'm not saying we expected the rovers to drop dead at the stroke of midnight on sol 91, but even the wildest optimists on the project did not openly dare to hope that we'd even double that 90-sol lifetime. (We've just hit twenty times that number, as it happens. Incredible!)

      Also note that underestimating surface survival time doesn't significantly reduce costs. Getting through the first 90 sols on Mars cost a little over $800 million. But most of that cost goes into design, development, testing, launch (about $100 million per rover goes to launch costs alone, IIRC), and so on. Operations, by comparison, is cheap: now that they're there, we run the rovers for ~ $20 million per year. If we'd known, for example, that we'd survive a year on the surface, we could have promised NASA four times the science for a ~ 10% cost increase; that would have made the project a better sell, and we'd have been fools not to do it.

  • Cost per MB? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    How much more data does the lander need to send before the total mission cost is cheaper on a per MB basis than sending txt messages to your BFF?

  • They should aim at making them even more resistant to the current and know issues ;)

  • Worth the money (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The value of this should be pressed to the bean counters. They will ultimately expound at length on how it could have been cheaper and better to only get the 3 months worth of value expected. But at the same time, spending what they did and getting 20 times as much value for the money makes the mission far more worth while, and shows the true value of those who designed the hardware. Kudos to those who did. Getting a car to go 2 million miles instead of 100,000 (without service) is not a feat many can a

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Sounds like NASA sent them to New Orleans, not Mars.
  • Now, if NASA could just get their shit together regarding putting actual PEOPLE in space again...
  • by Xaositecte (897197) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @03:09PM (#26313193) Journal

    There used to be a guy who wrote stories about how the Martians were interacting with the rover in comments every time a Rover story came up on Slashdot.

    Whatever happened to that guy? Where's he at?

  • ...we'd have an industry creating products of such jaw-dropping reliability it would almost beggar logic. ...If only.
  • NASA can send Humans to Mars right now, or start working on it now with full NASA manned budget on that instead of ISS and the Space Shuttle, and we could have the first Humans on Mars within 4 years from now. It will cost less than $30 billion to send 24 astronauts on 4 spaceships to Mars, with 4 earth-return spaceships sent there at the same time for the trip home. 6 months travel to go, 1 and a half years spent on Mars and 6 months for the return trip. It'd be a 2.5 year at least live Mars reality show,

    • NASA can send Humans to Mars right now, or start working on it now with full NASA manned budget on that instead of ISS and the Space Shuttle, and we could have the first Humans on Mars within 4 years from now.

      No, we wouldn't have humans on the Martian surface - we'd have dead humans somewhere in solar orbit because we wouldn't have had time to test all the equipment even minimally. One of the things we've discovered via Mir and the ISS is just how damn hard it is to make equipment that will last that long

  • by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @04:17PM (#26313741) Homepage

    I'm one of MER's rover drivers; I've been on the project from the start. Which has been considerably longer than five years, as development started about 3.5 years before landing, so MER has been the focus of my life for nearly a decade now. I co-wrote the software (RSVP) we use to drive the rovers, and I've been using that software to drive Spirit and Opportunity ever since.

    As a contribution to MER's five-year anniversary celebration, I'm blogging my personal mission notes from the early days of the mission. They'll be posted in "real time" -- roughly one update per day, five years after the fact -- at http://marsandme.blogspot.com/ [blogspot.com]. First update will be tonight around 18:30 (Pacific time).

    Be prepared to stick with it; it's a little slow for the first few days. And be aware that it's a personal activity, not a JPL-sponsored activity, so I occasionally swear and stuff. But if you're a fan of the rovers, it will, I hope, give you a new insight into what it's been like to be a small part of an historic adventure.

    Ah, and for twitterati: you can follow the official MER feed at http://twitter.com/MarsRovers [twitter.com]; you can follow me at http://twitter.com/marsroverdriver [twitter.com].

  • Wonderful (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Colourspace (563895) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @04:32PM (#26313829)
    And absolutely beautiful. In the current times we are all living in, Spirit and Opportunity remind us of what mankind can acheive, when we put our mind to it, and also how lucky we can be, unexpectedly.
  • by bacon volcano (1260566) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @04:56PM (#26313989)
    There is a great show [nationalgeographic.com] on this subject that aired on the National Geographic channel. I highly recommend it to anyone that hasn't been paying much attention to the rovers for the last five years.
  • by marcel-jan.nl (647348) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @05:45PM (#26314341) Homepage
    The Planetary Society has a very interesting article [planetary.org] about the five years the rover Spirit has been on Mars. And I wrote this one [astrostart.nl] about the Mars rovers in Dutch.
  • by Tablizer (95088) on Saturday January 03, 2009 @11:14PM (#26316661) Homepage Journal

    I've been reading about Spirit of late, and it seems like its last days are near. It's so dusty that it can probably only do decent roving in the summer, and will also not have enough power to survive the winter.

    It's busted wheel makes it difficult to find and move to a solar-panel-friendly high-tilt area that is near exploration areas. Thus, if it wonders off too far, it cannot get back to a safe spot fast enough to survive the cold or surprise dust storms, which block light. It almost hit the limit during a recent dust storm about 2 months ago.

    They may just send it off to explore and say, "screw the winter and dust storms; if it ends it ends." This probably depends on whether they can find good targets without going far.

    It could get lucky and get another whirlwind cleaning, though. These things have 9 lives, I swear.
           

  • The rovers have not yet found the flag left behind by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11

This is a good time to punt work.

Working...