In August 2012, the Mars Science Laboratory Rover, better known as Curiosity, landed on Mars. This 2,000-lb (900-kg) wheeled vehicle, which is still roaming the Martian surface, is a mobile laboratory equipped to conduct geological experiments aimed at figuring out the natural history of the red planet. It is the latest robot explorer to reach Mars, and the largest and most advanced in a long line of rovers sent to explore other worlds.
“Mars has been flown by, orbited, smacked into, radar-examined, and rocketed onto, as well as bounced upon, rolled over, shoveled, drilled into, baked, and even blasted. Still to come: Mars being stepped on.” Buzz Aldrin
The potential of rovers in space was clear as far back as 1971, when Apollo 15 carried a four-wheel Lunar Roving Vehicle to the moon. This agile twoseater widened the scope of lunar exploration for the last three Apollo missions. For instance, during the first moon landing in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent just two and a half hours moonwalking, and the farthest they moved from their lunar module was 200 ft (60 m). By contrast, however, in the final Apollo moon mission, Apollo 17, in 1972, the crew of two—Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt—spent more than 22 hours outside. In their rover, they covered 22 miles (36 km) in total, with one drive taking the pair 4.7 miles (7.6 km) from their spacecraft. The Lunar Roving Vehicle, or moon buggy, was used to collect rocks. The six Apollo missions returned to Earth with 840 lb (381 kg) of them.
Analysis of these rocks revealed much about the history of the moon. The oldest were about 4.6 billion years old, and their chemical composition clearly showed a common ancestry with rocks on Earth. Tests revealed no evidence of organic compounds, indicating that the moon has always been a dry and lifeless world.
The Soviet lunar program, which began in the early 1960s, relied on unmanned probes to explore the moon. Three of the Soviet Luna probes returned with a total of 11.5 oz (326 g) of rock. Then, in November 1970, the Soviet lander Luna 17 arrived at a large lunar plain called the Sea of Rains (many lunar areas are named after the weather conditions they were once thought to influence on Earth). Luna 17 carried the remote-controlled rover Lunokhod 1 (Lunokhod means “moonwalker”). This was the first wheeled vehicle to traverse an extraterrestrial world, arriving about eight months before the first Apollo buggy. The concept behind it was simple—instead of sending moon rocks to Earth, the rover would do the analysis there.
The Lunokhod rover was 7½-ft (2.3-m) long and resembled a motorized bathtub. The wheels were independently powered so that they could retain traction on the rough lunar terrain. Lunokhod was equipped with video cameras that sent back TV footage of the moon. An X-ray spectrometer was used to analyze the chemical composition of rocks, and a device called a penetrometer was pushed into the lunar regolith (soil) to measure its density. Lunokhod was powered by batteries that were charged by day using an array of solar panels that folded out from the top of the rover. At night, a source of radioactive polonium inside the machine acted as a heater to keep the machinery working. The rover received commands from controllers on Earth about where to go and when to perform experiments. A human might have done a better job, but rovers could stay in space for months on end, and did not require food and water from Earth.
Lunokhod 1 was designed to work for three months, but lasted almost 11. In January 1973, Lunokhod 2 landed in the Le Monnier Crater on the edge of the Sea of Serenity. By June, Lunokhod 2 had traveled a total of 24 miles (39 km), a record that would stand for more than three decades.
“Over time you could terraform Mars to look like Earth … So it’s a fixer-upper of a planet.” Elon Musk
As Lunokhod 1 was exploring the moon, the Soviet space program was eyeing an even greater prize: a rover on Mars. In December 1971, two Soviet spacecraft, code-named Mars 2 and Mars 3, sent modules to land on the red planet. Mars 2 crashed, but Mars 3 made a successful touchdown—the firstever landing on Mars. However, it lost all communications just 14.5 seconds later, probably due to damage from an intense dust storm. Scientists never found out what happened to Mars 3’s cargo: a Prop-M rover, a tiny 10-lb (4.5-kg) vehicle designed to walk on two ski-shaped feet. It was powered through a 50-ft (15-m) umbilical cord, and once on the surface was designed to take readings of the Martian soil. It is unlikely that the Prop-M ever carried out its mission, but it was programmed to operate without input from Earth. A radio signal between the moon and Earth travels in less than 2 seconds, but a signal to or from Mars takes between 3 and 21 minutes to arrive, varying with the planet’s distance from Earth. For a Martian rover to be a successful explorer, it needed to work autonomously.
In 1976, NASA’s two Viking landers sent back the first pictures of Mars. Following this success, many more rovers were planned, but most of these projects never reached their destination, succumbing to what the press dubbed the “Martian Curse.”
NASA eventually had a success with its 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission. In July of that year, the Pathfinder spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere. Slowed first by the friction of a heat shield and then by a large parachute, the spacecraft jettisoned its outer shielding, and the lander inside was lowered on a 65-ft (20-m) tether. As it neared the surface, huge protective airbags inflated around the lander, and retrorockets on the spacecraft holding the tether fired to slow the speed of descent. The tether was then cut, and the lander bounced across the Martian surface until it rolled to a stop. Fortunately, once the airbags had deflated, the lander was the right side up. The three upper sides or “petals” of the tetrahedral lander folded outward, revealing the 24-lb (11-kg) rover.
During development, the rover was called MFEX, short for Microrover Flight Experiment. However, it was known to the public as Sojourner, meaning “traveler” and chosen for its link to Sojourner Truth, a 19th-century US abolitionist and rights activist.
“We landed in a nice flat spot. Beautiful, really beautiful.” Adam Steltzner
Rolling on Mars
Sojourner was the first rover to take a tour of the Martian surface. However, the Pathfinder mission was really a test for the innovative landing system and the technology that would power larger rovers in the future. The minuscule vehicle traveled just 300 ft (100 m) during its 83-day mission, and never ventured farther than 40 ft (12 m) from the lander. Now named the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, the lander was used to relay data from the rover back to Earth. Most of the rover’s power came from small solar panels on the top. One of the goals of the mission was to see how these panels stood up to extreme temperatures and what power could be generated in the faint Martian sunlight.
The rover’s activities were run from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, and JPL has remained the lead agency in developing Martian rovers. With the time delays inherent in communicating with Mars, it is not possible to drive a rover in real time, so every leg of a journey must be preprogrammed. To achieve this, cameras on the lander were used to create a virtual model of the surface around Sojourner. Human controllers could view the area in 3-D from any angle before mapping a route for the rover.
Spirit and Opportunity
Despite its limitations in terms of size and power, Sojourner’s mission was a great success, and NASA pressed ahead with two Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs). In June 2003, MER A, named Spirit, and MER B, Opportunity, were ready for launch. They were about the same size as a Lunokhod rover, but were much lighter, at around 400 lb (180 kg). By the end of January the following year, both were traveling across the Martian deserts, hills, and plains, photographing surface features and chemically analyzing rock samples and atmosphere. They sent back the most glorious vistas of the Martian landscape ever seen, enabling geologists to examine the large-scale structures of the planet.
Spirit and Opportunity had landed using the same airbag-and-tether system as Sojourner. Like Sojourner, both relied on solar panels, but the new rovers were built as self-contained units, able to wander far from their landers. Each vehicle’s six wheels were attached to a rocking mechanism, which made it possible for the rovers to keep at least two wheels on the ground as they crossed rugged terrain. The software offered a degree of autonomy so that the rovers could respond to unpredictable events, such as a sudden dust storm, without needing to wait for instructions from Earth.
“Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.” Carl Sagan
Nevertheless, expectations for these rovers were low. JPL expected that they would cover about 2,000 ft (600 m) and last for 90 Martian sols (equivalent to about 90 Earth days). During the Martian winter, however, the team did not know whether the solar-powered rovers would retain adequate power to keep working. Of all the solar system’s rocky planets, the seasons of Mars are the most Earth-like, due to the similar tilts of the planets’ rotational axes. Martin winters are dark and bitterly cold, with surface temperatures falling to as low as –225°F (–143°C) near the polar ice caps.
As predicted, Martian winds blew fine dust onto the solar arrays, cutting their generating power; but the wind also blew the panels clean from time to time. As winter drew nearer, the JPL team searched for suitable locations in which the rovers could safely hibernate. To do this, they used a 3-D viewer built from the images taken from the rover’s stereoscopic cameras. They chose steep slopes that faced the rising sun in order to maximize electricity generation and to top off the batteries. All nonessential equipment was shut down so that power could be diverted to heaters that kept the rovers’ internal temperature above –40°F (–40°C).
The hibernation worked, and incredibly, JPL has managed to extend the rover missions from a few days to several years. More than five years into its mission, however, Spirit became bogged down in soft soil; all attempts to free it by remote control from Earth failed, and unable to move to a winter refuge, Spirit finally lost power 10 months later. It had traveled 4.8 miles (7.73 km). Opportunity, meanwhile, has avoided mishap and continues to operate. In 2014, it beat Lunokhod 2’s distance record, and by August 2015 it had completed the marathon distance of 26.4 miles (42.45 km). This was no mean feat on a planet located some hundreds of millions of miles from Earth.
Spirit and Opportunity were equipped with the latest detectors; including a microscope for imaging mineral structures and a grinding tool for accessing samples from the interiors of rocks.
However, Curiosity, the next rover to arrive on the planet in August 2012, carried instruments that not only studied the geology of Mars but also looked for biosignatures—the organic substances that would indicate whether Mars once harbored life. These included the SAM or Sample Analysis at Mars device, which vaporized samples of ground rock to reveal their chemicals. In addition, the rover monitored radiation levels to see whether the planet would be safe for future human colonization.
Considerably larger than previous rovers, Curiosity was delivered to Mars in an unusual way. During the landing phase of the mission, the radio delay (caused by the sheer distance from Earth) was 14 minutes, and the journey through the atmosphere to the surface would take just seven—all on autopilot (not remotely controlled from Earth). This created “seven minutes of terror”: the engineers on Earth knew that by the time a signal arrived informing them that Curiosity had entered the Martian atmosphere, the rover would already have been on the ground for seven minutes—and would be operational or smashed to pieces.
“The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph.” John Grunsfeld
As Curiosity’s landing craft moved through the upper atmosphere, its heat shield glowed with heat, while rockets adjusted the descent speed to reach the Gale Crater, an ancient crater caused by a massive meteorite impact. A parachute slowed the craft to about 200 mph (320 km/h), but this was still too fast for a landing. It continued to slow its descent over a flat region of the crater, avoiding the 20,000-ft (6,000-m) mountain at its center. The craft reached about 60 ft (20 m) above the surface and then had to hover, since going too low would create a dust cloud that might wreck its instruments. The rover was finally delivered to the surface via a rocket-powered hovering platform called a sky crane. The sky crane then had to be detached and blasted clear of the area so that its eventual impact did not upset any future exploration.
Having survived the landing, Curiosity signaled to Earth that it had arrived safely. Curiosity’s power supply is expected to last at least 14 years, and the initial two-year mission has now been extended indefinitely. So far, it has measured radiation levels, revealing that it may be possible for humans to survive on Mars; discovered an ancient stream bed, suggesting a past presence of water and perhaps even life; and found many of the key elements for life, including nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon.
In 2020, the European Space Agency, in collaboration with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, will launch its first Mars rover, ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars), with the goal of landing on Mars the following year. In addition to looking for signs of alien life, the solar-powered rover will carry a ground-penetrating radar that will look deep into Martian rocks to find groundwater. The ExoMars rover will communicate with Earth via the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which was launched in 2016. This system will limit data transfer to twice a day. The rover is designed to drive by itself; its control software will build a virtual model of the terrain and navigate through that. The rover software was taught how to drive in Stevenage, England, at a mockup of the Martian surface called the Mars Yard (above).
The ExoMars rover is expected to operate for at least seven months and to travel 2.5 miles (4 km) across the Martian surface. It will be delivered to the surface by a robotic platform that will then remain in place to study the area around the landing site.