This week, if you go outdoors at night and look towards the east, you may see a bright red object glowing in the night sky. That’s right, it’s the god of war himself, Mars. This week, Mars has just reached opposition with the Earth. This means that Mars is almost directly opposite the Earth from the Sun (hence: opposition). This means that Mars will be as bright as it gets, as the sunlight reflecting off it will be coming almost directly at us. Because both the Earth and Mars are going around the sun, we only come into opposition with Mars every 26 months. So go outside and enjoy Mars while you can. If you have a telescope with enough magnification, you may even be able to make out the polar ice caps on the planet.
NASA has so far landed five rovers on Mars. The first, Sojourner, was carried by the Pathfinder lander. It was only a bit larger than a shoebox. Spirit and Opportunity, the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, were larger, at about two meters wide. The Mars Science Laboratory (nicknamed Curiosity) landed in 2012, and is about the same size as a Mini Cooper. Perseverance touched down in 2021, and is a close twin to Curiosity. These rovers have done some incredible science far beyond what a static lander would be capable of. Perhaps coolest of all is that the Perseverance Rover is currently collecting samples for a future sample return mission to bring pieces of Martian rock back to Earth. But although serious work is being done learning about our rusty neighbor, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any time for fun.
It might not be too much of a surprise to learn that the people who work at NASA tend to be rather nerdy. I spent a summer working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and I can 100% back that statement up. And the scientists and engineers who work there revel in sharing their nerdy passions. For example, my boss, head of the Europa team, had a scale model of the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey outside his office. Here are some fun facts about the fun stuff NASA has done with the Mars rovers.
- All of the Mars rovers have gotten their names from essays submitted in contests by students.
- Spirit and Opportunity featured Marvin the Martian and Duck Dogers on their mission patches, respectively.
- Both Spirit and Opportunity had a planned mission duration of 90 sols (a Martian day). Spirit ran for 2,623 sols, and Opportunity for 5,352 sols.
- Curiosity and Perseverance are so large that they had to use a radical “sky crane” maneuver to be lowered onto Mars’s surface. This consisted of the rover being lowered to the ground from a flying crane. Watching the landing from Perseverance’s onboard cameras is pretty amazing.
- Perseverance’s parachute design had Morse code hidden in it: it says “Dare Mighty Things”, the unofficial motto of JPL. It also contains the latitude and longitude coordinates of JPL.
- Perseverance has also been assigned a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), just like a common Earth car. Perseverance’s VIN is AONREHMELN1730055.
- The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) designated Jezero Crater with a special location code: JZRO. This is the “aerodrome” for the Ingenuity helicopter carried by Perseverance.
- Speaking of Ingenuity, the plucky little helicopter carries a small piece of the original Wright Flyer. The first powered flight on Mars paying homage to the first powered flight on Earth.
I could go on and on and on with facts and stories about the Mars rovers, and the rest of NASA’s space exploration programs. But I think that I will leave those for another time.
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