Red Planet Roundup: Opportunity knocks; Spirit revives

The NASA rover Opportunity bounced onto an equatorial Martian plain called Meridiani on Jan. 25, half-a-planet away from its convalescing twin, Spirit. Not since 1976 had twin rovers landed on Mars, and never before had five spacecraft?three orbiters in addition to the rovers?simultaneously surveyed the Red Planet.

ROCKY VIEW. Image taken by the Mars rover Opportunity shows outcroppings just inside the rim of the rover’s small home crater. The rocks lie 6 meters to 8 m from the lander. JPL/NASA

Although the region where Opportunity touched down is generally flat, the lander parachuted into a shallow crater, about 20 meters wide and 2 m deep. The rover’s first images reveal a terrain darker than that at any previous landing site. Just 6 m to 8 m from the lander lies an outcropping of bedrock, the first recorded on Mars.

The outcropping features flat rocks that contain layers like those of a wedding cake. “This is something we’ve never seen on Mars before,” lead scientist Steve Squyres of Cornell University said at a Jan. 27 press briefing from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

The rocks formed either from ancient volcanic ash deposits or from sediments laid down by water or wind, says rover researcher Andrew Knoll of Harvard University.

Opportunity can gather two kinds of evidence?physical and chemical?to distinguish between the volcanic and water-related models for the layering, says Knoll. If the layers are arranged in neat, parallel rows, instead of being slightly askew, then a volcanic process is more likely, he says. If close-up pictures reveal layers in which the material contains rounded particles cemented in place, rather than a loose agglomeration of flatter grains, then water was probably at play. The rover’s infrared spectrometer may reveal whether the rocks contain minerals altered by the presence of water.

Although scientists are eager for Opportunity to drive off its landing pad and hit the dirt, engineers early this week were proceeding cautiously. They are hoping to reduce the chances of encountering the same problem that befell Spirit, which hasn’t been fully operational since Jan. 21. Spirit rebooted its onboard computer 130 times over 3 days. And like a stubborn child, the rover refused to go to sleep, thereby wasting energy.

Scientists have brought Spirit back under their control, and it’s sleeping at night again. The team has concluded that the problem stems from the rover’s flash memory. This kind of computer memory, which retains data even when power is shut down, is similar to that used in digital cameras.

If necessary, the rover can instead rely on random access memory, or RAM, to perform its daily operations, says mission manager Jennifer Trosper of JPL. However, RAM isn’t retained when the solar-powered rover sleeps, so any data Spirit couldn’t transmit by each sunset would be lost.

The team continues to analyze the rover’s memory and software. It could be another 2 weeks before Spirit is ready to resume operations, Trosper says.

Meanwhile, British scientists have all but signed the death certificate for their lander, the Beagle 2, which hasn’t been heard from since it arrived on Mars on Christmas Day (SN: 1/10/04, p. 22: Available to subscribers at A Tale of Two Landers: NASA’s Spirit phones home, but Europe’s Beagle 2 remains mum on Mars). According to preprogrammed instructions, 10 days of no radio contact from Earth should force the

Beagle 2 to leave its transmitter on for most of each Martian day, upping the odds that its mother craft, Mars Express, or another orbiting spacecraft would pick up a signal. From Jan. 12 to Jan. 22, scientists sent the lander no signals. Three subsequent days of intensive searching by Mars Express failed to find any transmission.


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