5 Years on Mars

I'd like to highlight a really nice show airing now on the National Geographic Channel called Five Years on Mars. The program features stunning 3D renderings of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers throughout their adventures on the red planet. I really like the way the show portrays how the timeline for each rover's journey unfolded, including the different trials they faced and the inventive solutions the ground teams devised to overcome them. It's just amazing that the rovers are still going way past their 90-day shelf life.

For more details on the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) mission, check out the its NASA and Cornell homepages. The Planetary Society periodically publishes really nice summaries of the rovers' activities too. If you have some 3-D glasses, check out the rover 3-D image gallery or this MSNBC article. There are so many great images taken by the rovers, that I'd be hard pressed to choose a favorite. Instead, I'll just share this really cool movie a dust devil crossing Gusev Crater captured by Spirit in 2005:

You can pretend you're a NASA scientist driving the rovers on Mars with the free software package called Maestro. This Java-based program can run on any modern computer operating system and is a scaled-down version of the program actually used to operate the rovers. It even allows you to explore the full science imagery datasets from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. You can see a screenshot of the software in action below:

I've had a bit of a personal connection to the MER program since one of my former professors is the mission co-PI. Two years before the rovers even blasted off from Earth I did a small class project on how to use the rover wheels to excavate trenches in the martian soil. JPL's full-scale mock-up of the Spirit rover was on display in our department's lobby for a few years, so I was reminded of the mission every day when I came to work.

Despite uncertainty associated with large cost overruns, the next-generation rover mission Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is still on the books for an October 2009 launch. However, the nuclear-powered science lab on wheels may slip to the 2011 launch window. You can view some cool photos and videos of the MSL prototype here.

In other Mars news, the European- and Russian-led Mars-500 Project just announced the selection of an 8-member crew for its initial 105 day isolation experiment to simulate a manned mission to Mars. They plan a 500 day experiment starting in 2009.

Update 12/30/2008:

NASA JPL just issued a press release titled "Mars Rovers Near Five Years of Science and Discovery" that provides an update on the current MER status.

Update 01/04/2009:

Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society just blogged about the 5 Years Spirit has spent on Mars. She even has a podcast about it too.
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