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PASSPORT TO KNOWLEDGE - To MARS with MER
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That's what's happening now at NASA JPL: as if landing a second spacecraft, Opportunity, on Mars were not difficult enough, the Mars Exploration Rover team is experiencing serious difficulties with Spirit, already on the ground at Gusev Crater. Spirit was going to be given a planned rest during Opportunity's landing and first days on the surface -- though this kind of spell of "intensive care" was in no-one's play book -- in order to allow full attention to today's inherently risky events. But the Jan 23 briefing was evidence of the quality and commitment of the mission team: project manager, Pete Theisinger, was calm and forthcoming: yes, there were serious communications and possibly hardware problems with the spacecraft (see JPL releases linked in below) but a dedicated team of engineers was carefully working through data to come up with answers, while a separate team was attending to the Entry, Descent and Landing, or EDL, of Opportunity (set for the evening of Saturday Jan 24, Pacific time.) Most of the questions, naturally, were about Spirit, which unfortunately eclipsed the amazing information and images in the reports of Wayne Lee, Miguel San Martin and Adam Steltzner: for the past few weeks, they and colleagues have been working on a "reconstruction" of Spirit's EDL, in order to fine tune that for Opportunity. They've been able to get to incredible detail, including data that the Descent Rate Limiter (controlling the unspooling of the bridle linking the lander to the backshell) took 11 not the expected 6 seconds to deploy. Their information about the number and direction of the bounces also allowed them to determine exactly where Spirit came to rest: equally astonishing images from the Mars Orbital Camera aboard the Global Surveyor allowed MOC camera PI, Mike Malin, to show where the parachute and backshell, the heat shield, and Spirit herself came to rest. Check out the images for evidence of how powerful the combination of software, hardware and human ingenuity can be. Spirit's communications difficulties are serious and as yet mysterious: not even Pete Theisinger could predict if and when progress might be made. But the Rover mission team are tough and dedicated: if anyone can figure out the problems and fix them, it's them. Stay tuned for news from Opportunity and soon, we hope, once more from Spirit.
NASA Hears from Opportunity Rover on Mars
January 25, 2004
NASA's second Mars Exploration Rover successfully sent signals to Earth during its bouncy landing and after it came to rest on one of the three side petals of its four-sided lander.
Mission engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., received the first signal from Opportunity on the ground at 9:05 p.m. Pacific Standard Time Saturday via the NASA Deep Space Network, which was listening with antennas in California and Australia.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University
"We're on Mars, everybody!" JPL's Rob Manning, manager for development of the landing system, announced to the cheering flight team.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said at a subsequent press briefing, "This was a tremendous testament to how NASA, when really focused on an objective, can put every ounce of effort, energy, emotion and talent to an important task. This team is the best in the world, no doubt about it."
Opportunity landed in a region called Meridiani Planum, halfway around the planet from the Gusev Crater site where its twin rover, Spirit, landed three weeks ago. Earlier today, mission managers reported progress in understanding and dealing with communications and computer problems on Spirit.
"In the last 48 hours, we've been on a roller coaster," said Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for space science. "We resurrected one rover and saw the birth of another."
JPL's Pete Theisinger, project manager for the rovers, said, "We are two for two. Here we are tonight with Spirit on a path to recovery and with Opportunity on Mars."
By initial estimates, Opportunity landed about 24 kilometers (15 miles) down range from the center of the target landing area. That is well within an outcropping of a mineral called gray hematite, which usually forms in the presence of water. "We're going to have a good place to do science," said JPL's Richard Cook, deputy project manager for the rovers.
Once it pushed itself upright by opening the petals of the lander, Opportunity was expected to be facing east.
The main task for both rovers in coming months is to explore the areas around their landing sites for evidence in rocks and soils about whether those areas ever had environments that were watery and possibly suitable for sustaining life.
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Additional information about the project is available from JPL at http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov and from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., at http://athena.cornell.edu.