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Beginners Astronomy: Mars 4 – Recent Missions

By Dunan Lunan

Europe’s Mars Express is still in orbit around the red planet, where it was joined by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, whose cameras are so sensitive that they imaged the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and their even smaller predecessor Sojourner. 

Mars Express probe NASA/JPL/Caltech

Since then it’s photographed all the subsequent landers, and even located the UK’s missing Beagle 2.  Mars Global Surveyor failed after ten years in orbit, but not before taking an extraordinary photograph of the Earth, Moon and beyond them Jupiter, together as seen from Mars.  

The lake-bed sediments of Gale Crater on Mars from NASA’s Curiosity rover (credit: NASA/JPL, California Institute of Technology)

Europe’s Rosetta probe, bound for a cometary encounter in 2014, changed course by means of a close Mars flyby in February 2007, taking spectacular photos in the infrared and ultraviolet on approach.   It was in the Martian ionosphere at its closest approach;  its solar-powered instruments were unpowered in the shadow of the planet, but some of the ones on the comet lander, Philae, were working.

With the life of the solar panels renewed over a year after Spirit and Opportunity touched down, the Imaging System Lead Scientist declared, “We’re in uncharted territory now and we’ll go until the wheels fall off”. 

By late November 2005 the two rovers had been operational for a whole Martian year of 687 days;  Spirit eventually was bogged down, but Opportunity lasted until 2018 before succumbing to that year’s planet-wide dust storm.  It had spent six years circling the rim of Endeavour crater, 14 years into a mission which was planned to last just 90 days, and was just starting a descent towards the crater floor. 

Because they’re solar powered and the Martian day is 37 minutes longer than ours, controllers of these long-duration missions have to turn up for work 30-40 minutes later each day and are now well used to living on Martian time, so in that sense, we now have Martians living and working on Earth.

The Rosalind Franklin rover by European Space Agency and Roscosmos will drill 2 meters below the surface of Mars to search for signs of life. CREDIT NYU Abu Dhabi

Also in this series:

And check out : The Sky Above You – August 2021

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