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Space exploration stronger than ever

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Space has been labeled “the final frontier”, and lately NASA scientists and others have been forging strongly ahead into that frontier with new discoveries and exciting missions. The manned space flights of the Space Shuttle era may be over, but our exploration of space continues.

Space Shuttle flights made the news because they were spectacular to watch. What we don’t see or hear much about are missions like the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) named Spirit and Opportunity (an artist’s rendering of these rovers is pictured at the top of this blog entry). These are unmanned rovers but they have been cruising around the surface of Mars since the beginning of 2004.

Spirit recently went silent and has ceased to be an active rover. Opportunity, however, is going strong after traveling 20.8 miles since landing on Mars in January 2004. Both of these rovers were expected to have a life of about 3 months. Talk about exceeding your warranty! NASA has gotten their money’s worth out of these MERs.

The path of Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity during it’s 20.8 miles of driving on Mars. Each number along the path represents the number of Martian days since it landed. Eagle Crater, at the top, was day 1 when the rover landed.

The rovers come with cameras and robotic arms. They have dug up and sampled parts of the Martian soil, making key discoveries about the constituents of that soil and noting evidence of water in a prior time period. Could water in some form still exist beneath the surface of Mars and does it hold some form of primitive life?

Opportunity’s path has zig-zagged for 2,670 Martian days. It has reached the rim of Endeavour Crater after setting out 3 years ago from it’s last stopping point. This rover is actually traveling backwards because of a faulty wheel, but it is still getting the job done. The NASA scientists that steer the rover are constantly amazed at how well it has held up to the freezing cold of Martian winters (down to -225° F. in polar regions) and the numerous dust storms that cover the solar panels and deplete it’s power source.

Opportunity has recently discovered zinc in the soil around Endeavour Crater. Scientists have seen zinc in Earth’s soil associated with thermal venting. Perhaps this is a new clue that Mars was once a geologically active planet, with a hydrothermal system that percolates water to the surface.

There is still so much to discover about the Red Planet. Here’s hoping Opportunity continues to roll along.