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20 Years After Landing: How NASA’s Twin Rovers Changed Mars Science


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This self-portrait of NASA Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity comes courtesy of the Sun and the rover front hazard-avoidance camera. The dramatic snapshot of Opportunity shadow was taken as the rover continues to move farther into Endurance Crater
NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers landed on the Red Planet on Jan. 3 and 24, 2004, respectively. This image shows a view Opportunity captured of its own shadow on July 26 of that year, the 180th Martian day, or sol, of its mission.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Spirit and Opportunity’s landing on Mars, part of a mission whose legacy will extend far into the future.

In January 2004, twin NASA rovers named Spirit and Opportunity touched down on opposite sides of Mars, kicking off a new era of interplanetary robotic exploration. They arrived in dramatic fashion three weeks apart, each nestled in a cluster of airbags that bounced along the surface around 30 times before coming to a stop and deflating. The golf cart-size rovers’ mission: to look for evidence that water once flowed on the Red Planet’s surface.

Their findings would rewrite science textbooks, including Opportunity’s discovery soon after landing of the famous “blueberries” – spherical pebbles of the mineral hematite that had formed in acidic water. Several years into the mission, Spirit, undaunted but now dragging a damaged wheel, uncovered signs of ancient hot springs that could have been ideal habitats for microbial life billions of years ago (if any ever existed on the Red Planet).

Scientists suspected Mars had long ago been radically different than the freezing desert it is today: Orbital images had shown what looked like networks of water-carved channels. But before Spirit and Opportunity, there was no proof that liquid water had formed those features.

On the 20th anniversary of the landing of Spirit and Opportunity, celebrate NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project with this two-sided poster that lists some of the pioneering explorers’ accomplishments on the Red Planet.

“Our twin rovers were the first to prove a wet, early Mars once existed,” said former project scientist Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which managed the Mars Exploration Rover mission. “They paved the way for learning even more about the Red Planet’s past with larger rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance.”

An Enduring Legacy

Thanks in part to the science collected by Spirit and Opportunity, NASA approved development of the SUV-size Curiosity rover to investigate whether the chemical ingredients that support life were present billions of years ago on what was once a watery world. (The rover found soon after its 2012 landing that they were.)

Perseverance, which arrived at the Red Planet in 2021, is building on Curiosity’s success by collecting rock cores that could be brought to Earth to check for signs of ancient microbial life through the Mars Sample Return campaign, a joint effort by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency).

While working on Spirit and Opportunity, engineers developed practices for exploring the surface that continue today, including the use of specialized software and 3D goggles to better navigate the Martian environment. And after honing years of expertise during the twin rovers’ travels over Mars’ rocky, sandy surface, engineers are able to plan safer, longer drives, and to quickly put together the far more complex daily plans required to operate Curiosity and Perseverance.

Using footage filmed at JPL when Spirit touched down on Jan. 3, 2004, as well an animation depicting the rover’s arrival at the Red Planet, this video celebrates the 20th anniversary of Mars Exploration Rover Project landings. Spirit’s twin Opportunity arrived at Mars three weeks later. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Science team members have also become more adept in their role as virtual field geologists, drawing on years of knowledge to select the best ways to investigate Martian terrain using the robotic “eyes” and tools carried by their roving partners.

Martian Marathon

Designed to last just 90 days, Spirit landed on Jan. 3; Opportunity, on Jan. 24. The solar-powered Mars Exploration Rovers soldiered on for years – in the case of Opportunity, nearly 15 years, before succumbing to a planet-enveloping dust storm in 2018. That durability surpassed the wildest dreams of scientists and engineers, who had only expected localized exploration over a distance of no more than one-third of a mile (600 meters).

Instead, through their long-lived robotic surrogates, the team got the chance to roam a wide variety of Martian terrains. Opportunity, the first rover to go a marathon-length distance on another planet, would ultimately cover nearly 30 miles (45 kilometers) in total – the farthest distance driven on another planet.

“This was a paradigm shift no one was expecting,” said former project manager John Callas of JPL. “The distance and time scale we covered were a leap in scope that is truly historic.”

An artist concept portrays a NASA Mars Exploration Rover on the surface of Mars. Two rovers were launched in 2003 and arrived at sites on Mars in January 2004.
This artist’s concept depicts one of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers on the Red Planet. The twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004 and lasted years beyond their expected 90-day mission.

The chance to see so much was critical for revealing that not only was Mars once a wetter world, but also that it supported many different kinds of watery environments – fresh water, hot springs, acidic and salty pools – at distinct points in its history.

Continuing Inspiration

The roving twins would also inspire a new generation of scientists. One of those was Abigail Fraeman, who was a high school student invited to JPL on the night of Opportunity’s landing. She got to watch the excitement as the first signal returned, confirming Opportunity had safely landed.

She would go on to pursue a career as a Mars geologist, returning to JPL years later to help lead Opportunity’s science team. Now deputy project scientist for Curiosity, Fraeman calls many of the people she met on Opportunity’s landing night her close colleagues.

“The people who kept our twin rovers running for all those years are an extraordinary group, and it’s remarkable how many have made exploring Mars their career,” Fraeman said. “I feel so lucky I get to work with them every day while we continue to venture into places no human has ever seen in our attempt to answer some of the biggest questions.”

More About the Mission

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, managed the Mars Exploration Rover Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about Spirit and Opportunity, visit:


News Media Contacts

Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Karen Fox / Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
301-286-6284 / 202-358-1501
karen.c.fox@nasa.gov / alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov


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      Download this image

      With data from NASA’s flying telescope SOFIA, which retired in 2022, the team was able to detect the water, gas, and dust flowing in and around the system. Infrared spectral data shows that the giant star, which produces copious amounts of dust, returned to its normal behavior within only a couple years of the explosion, but also that it has dimmed in recent years, which is another puzzle to be explained.
      With SOFIA astronomers were able to see water moving at around 18 miles per second, which they suspect is the speed of the sizzling accretion disk around the white dwarf. The bridge of gas connecting the giant star to the white dwarf must presently span about 2 billion miles.
      The team has also been working with the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers), to collaborate with amateur astronomers from around the world who help keep telescopic eyes on HM Sge; their continued monitoring reveals changes that haven’t been seen since its outburst 40 years ago.
      “Symbiotic stars like HM Sge are rare in our galaxy, and witnessing a nova-like explosion is even rarer. This unique event is a treasure for astrophysicists spanning decades,” said Goldman.
      The initial results from the team’s research were published in the Astrophysical Journal, and Sankrit is presenting research focused on the UV spectroscopy at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.
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      DeCoursey presented these findings in a press conference at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.
      Image A: Jades Deep Field Annotated
      The JADES Deep Field uses observations taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as part of the JADES (JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey) program. A team of astronomers studying JADES data identified about 80 objects (circled in green) that changed in brightness over time. Most of these objects, known as transients, are the result of exploding stars or supernovae. Prior to this survey, only a handful of supernovae had been found above a redshift of 2, which corresponds to when the universe was only 3.3 billion years old — just 25% of its current age. The JADES sample contains many supernovae that exploded even further in the past, when the universe was less than 2 billion years old. It includes the farthest one ever spectroscopically confirmed, at a redshift of 3.6. Its progenitor star exploded when the universe was only 1.8 billion years old.
      ‘A Supernova Discovery Machine’
      To make these discoveries, the team analyzed imaging data obtained as part of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES) program. Webb is ideal for finding extremely distant supernovae because their light is stretched into longer wavelengths — a phenomenon known as cosmological redshift.
      Prior to Webb’s launch, only a handful of supernovae had been found above a redshift of 2, which corresponds to when the universe was only 3.3 billion years old — just 25% of its current age. The JADES sample contains many supernovae that exploded even further in the past, when the universe was less than 2 billion years old.
      Previously, researchers used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to view supernovae from when the universe was in the “young adult” stage. With JADES, scientists are seeing supernovae when the universe was in its “teens” or “pre-teens.” In the future, they hope to look back to the “toddler” or “infant” phase of the universe.
      To discover the supernovae, the team compared multiple images taken up to one year apart and looked for sources that disappeared or appeared in those images. These objects that vary in observed brightness over time are called transients, and supernovae are a type of transient. In all, the JADES Transient Survey Sample team uncovered about 80 supernovae in a patch of sky only about the thickness of a grain of rice held at arm’s length.
      “This is really our first sample of what the high-redshift universe looks like for transient science,” said teammate Justin Pierel, a NASA Einstein Fellow at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. “We are trying to identify whether distant supernovae are fundamentally different from or very much like what we see in the nearby universe.”
      Pierel and other STScI researchers provided expert analysis to determine which transients were actually supernovae and which were not, because often they looked very similar.
      The team identified a number of high-redshift supernovae, including the farthest one ever spectroscopically confirmed, at a redshift of 3.6. Its progenitor star exploded when the universe was only 1.8 billion years old. It is a so-called core-collapse supernova, an explosion of a massive star. 
      Image B: Jades Deep Field Transients (NIRCam)
      This mosaic displays three of about 80 transients, or objects of changing brightness, identified in data from the JADES (JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey) program. Most of the transients are the result of exploding stars or supernovae. By comparing images taken in 2022 and 2023, astronomers could locate supernovae that recently exploded (like the examples shown in the first two columns), or supernovae that had already exploded and whose light was fading away (third column). The age of each supernova can be determined from its redshift (designated by ‘z’). The light of the most distant supernova, at a redshift of 3.8, originated when the universe was only 1.7 billion years old. A redshift of 2.845 corresponds to a time 2.3 billion years after the big bang. The closest example, at a redshift of 0.655, shows light that left its galaxy about 6 billion years ago, when the universe was just over half its current age.
      Uncovering Distant Type Ia Supernovae
      Of particular interest to astrophysicists are Type Ia supernovae. These exploding stars are so predictably bright that they are used to measure far-off cosmic distances and help scientists to calculate the universe’s expansion rate. The team identified at least one Type Ia supernova at a redshift of 2.9. The light from this explosion began traveling to us 11.5 billion years ago when the universe was just 2.3 billion years old. The previous distance record for a spectroscopically confirmed Type Ia supernova was a redshift of 1.95, when the universe was 3.4 billion years old.
      Scientists are eager to analyze Type Ia supernovae at high redshifts to see if they all have the same intrinsic brightness, regardless of distance. This is critically important, because if their brightness varies with redshift, they would not be reliable markers for measuring the expansion rate of the universe.
      Pierel analyzed this Type Ia supernova found at redshift 2.9 to determine if its intrinsic brightness was different than expected. While this is just the first such object, the results indicate no evidence that Type Ia brightness changes with redshift. More data is needed, but for now, Type Ia supernova-based theories about the universe’s expansion rate and its ultimate fate remain intact. Pierel also presented his findings at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
      Looking Toward the Future
      The early universe was a very different place with extreme environments. Scientists expect to see ancient supernovae that come from stars that contain far fewer heavy chemical elements than stars like our Sun. Comparing these supernovae with those in the local universe will help astrophysicists understand star formation and supernova explosion mechanisms at these early times.
      “We’re essentially opening a new window on the transient universe,” said STScI Fellow Matthew Siebert, who is leading the spectroscopic analysis of the JADES supernovae. “Historically, whenever we’ve done that, we’ve found extremely exciting things — things that we didn’t expect.”
      “Because Webb is so sensitive, it’s finding supernovae and other transients almost everywhere it’s pointed,” said JADES team member Eiichi Egami, a research professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “This is the first significant step toward more extensive surveys of supernovae with Webb.”
      The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency). 
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      Media Contacts
      Laura Betz – laura.e.betz@nasa.gov, Rob Gutro – rob.gutro@nasa.gov
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
      Ann Jenkins – jenkins@stsci.edu / Christine Pulliam – cpulliam@stsci.edu
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
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      Last Updated Jun 10, 2024 Editor Stephen Sabia Contact Laura Betz laura.e.betz@nasa.gov Related Terms
      Astrophysics Galaxies Galaxies, Stars, & Black Holes James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Missions Origin & Evolution of the Universe Science & Research The Universe View the full article
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