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JPL joins in 10-year celebration of Mars rovers

It has been 10 years since Spirit and Opportunity explorers landed on Mars.

January 15, 2014|By Sara Cardine
  • Jim Erickson, Dr. Steve Squyres, and Dr. Firouz Naderi, three team leaders on the project, in 2005 watch a video clip that captured the moment when one of the Mars rovers landed on Mars in January 2004.
Jim Erickson, Dr. Steve Squyres, and Dr. Firouz Naderi,… (File Photo )

In January 2004, two exploration vehicles touched down on Mars, beginning a 90-day mission in search of potential sources of water, a precursor for life, on a seemingly dead planet.

Armed with geological instruments, cameras and the technology required to beam down information to scientists at La Cañada’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spirit and Opportunity were expected to traverse separate courses of about two-thirds of one mile during their three-month journeys.

Now, 10 years later, scientists are still sifting through mountains of data and images collected by Spirit, which traveled 4.8 miles during its six years of mobile operation, and Opportunity, which has logged an amazing 23.6 miles and continues today.

Throughout January, to commemorate the past decade of science and discovery that has been accomplished by the twin Mars Exploration rovers (MER), NASA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) are sponsoring a series of events and talks, highlighted by a photographic museum exhibit that runs through Sept. 14.

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Locally, JPL is hosting its own events, including a public celebration this evening (Thursday) at 7 p.m. in Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. It will feature JPL Director Charles Elachi, MER Project Manager John Callas and Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society of Pasadena, in addition to several rover team members.

“The rovers Spirit and Opportunity are human proxies on the surface, so they are exploring on our behalf. As a result, we care for them and we have interest in them,” Callas said in an interview. “I was there at the beginning, so I have very affectionate ties to these rovers.”

On Friday, Callas will lecture on “The Mars Exploration Rovers: A Decade of Exploration,” at 7 p.m. at Pasadena City College’s Volosh Forum. Both events are free and open to the public.

The idea is to let people know how far Spirit and Opportunity have taken scientists in their attempt to unveil mysteries surrounding the Red Planet, namely whether it did, or could, sustain human life.

From the beginning, data collected by the rovers has been impressive, Steve Squyres, a Cornell University astronomy professor and principal investigator for the MER mission, said in a Jan. 7 panel discussion on the robotic and human missions held at the National Air and Space Museum.

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