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Dual Rovers That Go On Planet Mars

The view across Gusev Crater
by Steve Squyres
Principal Investigator Mars Rovers
Pasadena CA (JPL) Aug 03, 2005
A lot of the action was here on Earth last week. The science team for this mission has been together for about a decade, and during the first eight months after we landed we were all living and working together in Pasadena.

So we know one another pretty well. Since last September, though, we've all gone back to our home institutions, and we do flight operations remotely. While we talk to one another by phone and videoconference daily - often for many hours a day - we hardly ever see one another face to face any more.

It all works fine for flight operations, but there's no substitute for being in the same room together when it's time to really sit down and argue about the science. So this week the whole team gathered here in Ithaca for what amounted to a three-day MER science fest.

I try to do a pretty good job of staying on top of all our discoveries, but still, it was pretty eye-opening to sit in a room and listen for eight hours a day to new analyses of all our results.

We're really getting some serious science done these days, with a large set of papers about Meridiani just accepted for publication by Earth and Planetary Science Letters, and another batch of papers about Gusev being prepared for the Journal of Geophsyical Research.

There aren't any really big discoveries in these papers that you haven't heard about already... we're just adding the richness of detail that a careful examination of the data over many months allows for.

On top of the science, it was also just really good to see everybody again. The team got very close during all those months of living on Mars time. Things change... one of our team members passed away a few months ago, and several babies have been born. In fact, there were two little ones less than a year old at the meeting. So life goes on. We've gotten to be a bit like a big, sprawling family, I guess.

One of the most impressive things to me about the whole meeting was how effective our remote operations procedures have become. We'd stop the science talks for a couple of hours each day to do tactical planning meetings for each rover, with people spread all over the place. As just as one example, at Tuesday morning's Opportunity SOWG meeting, there were eighty scientists in a hotel conference room in Ithaca, all making suggestions for what to do.

The Payload Uplink Leads, who are the people who write commands for the instruments, were on campus at Cornell and at Arizona State near Phoenix. The guy at the controls of the computer screen we were all watching was in Boulder, Colorado, the engineers were all at JPL, and the leader of the whole meeting was in Flagstaff, Arizona. It all worked, and we got a good command load put together in time for the uplink.

So that was Earth. On Mars, Spirit spent the week working over the fantastic outcrop called Voltaire that we found last week.

You only have to look at the pictures to see that the Voltaire region is one of the most interesting places we've found on Husband Hill. There's an incredible amount of variety here, including some things we've never seen before.

Voltaire itself is a new rock type for us, composed of very large, often angular grains embedded in a fine-grained matrix. We're just starting to get a handle on what it's made of, with some key APXS and Moessbauer data coming down this weekend.

The first first spot on it that we looked at was named Descartes, and the second one, which we're on now, we named Bourgeoisie. We're probably going to finish up Bourgeoisie over the weekend, then bump to the right a little for some Microscopic Imager work on another rock, and then - probably - do one more full APXS/Moessbauer/MI workup on one more rock that both Mini-TES and Pancam are telling us may be something else we've never seen before. This is turning out to be a surprisingly target-rich environment, and we've got to work it for all its worth before we move on.

After that, we head toward the summit. The strong feeling on the team is that we should try to go for what we've been calling "Summit 2", which is both closer to us and a little bit higher than Summit 1. If we get to the actual summit we'll probably want to take a fairly substantial panorama there. But the thing we're all most eager for is the view that we'll get off the south side of the summit, down onto lower flanks of Husband Hill that we've never seen before.

We're not really convinced that we'll get a good view of this stuff from the true summit, so if we do make it to the top, we may not linger there all that long. It's been an interesting time working on Spirit these days, as we try to find the right balance between our eagerness to get moving up the hill and our excitement over all the new stuff we're finding at Voltaire.

And then there's Meridiani, where Opportunity continues to work her way southward. Many people at the meeting were commenting on how ironic it is that the rovers seem to have switched roles over the past six months. For much of the early part of the mission, Opportunity grabbed all the headlines while Spirit struggled gamely across the lava blocks of the Gusev plains.

Today it's the other way around, with Spirit making discovery after discovery on Husband Hill and Opportunity struggling gamely across the sand and the blueberries of Meridiani.

The big news, though, is that we're really starting to see serious amounts of bedrock with Opportunity now. The farther south we've gotten the more common these little outcrops have become, and as we look southward we see more of them still. For a long time, we were worried that the bright, mottled stuff that we see from orbit in the etched terrain might just be dust.

If that were the case, our chances of ever getting to Victoria Crater might be pretty close to zero. With all this rock we're seeing, though, it has greatly buoyed our hopes that we'll find firmer ground, better driving, and more science as we work our way into the mottled stuff. It's a good feeling.

So that's the latest. I should probably mention that it'll be more difficult than usual for me to do these updates for the next five weeks or so. I've written a book about MER that comes out next week, and one unavoidable consequence of authorship these days is the "book tour" - a string of appearances hither, thither and yon to tell the world about the book.

So for a little while I'll mostly be bopping around the US, Australia and the UK, popping up here and there and trying to follow what the rovers are doing from a distance. I'll do the best I can with updates during that time, and I should be back to doing daily flight ops again starting the second week of September.

You can read more of Steve Squyres Rover Diaries at Athena.Cornell.Edu

Related Links
Mars Rovers at JPL
Mars Rovers at Cornell
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Pasadena CA (JPL) Jul 26, 2005
The Opportunity team's current strategy for driving alternates segments of using visual odometry to check for slippage with segments of blind driving for less than 5 meters (16 feet). The strategy and hard work designing and commanding drives through troughs between ripples contributed to the rover making 89 meters (292 feet) of progress over three drive plans.

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