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January 26th: 7th Anniversary of Opportunity’s Arrival on Mars

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Date: January 26, 2011

Title: 7th Anniversary of Opportunity’s Arrival on Mars

Podcaster: Ken Brandt

Links: Mars Rover website: marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov
Planetary Society Website: www.planetarysociety.org

Description: Riddle me this: What has lasted 28 times longer than its warranty, driven over 15 miles, and recorded over 147,000 images of the plains of Mars? Of Course, Opportunity has. Ken Brandt returns to speak about 7 glorious years roving Mars, and what’s next for our intrepid rover, and the Mars exploration program.

Bio: Ken is an astronomy educator, planetarium director, and an ardent fan of space exploration and exploration. Ken loves teaching, and some of his finest hours are spent with students, be they third graders or college seniors. Ken also reminds us that we are one planet, and we all live under the same night sky.

Ken is also a volunteer in the Jet Propulsion Lab’s Solar System Ambassador and Educator Outreach Programs.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — no one. We still need sponsors for many days in 2011, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at signup@365daysofastronomy.org.

Transcript:

MER Opportunity 7th Anniversary Podcast

Do you remember where you were 7 years ago-January 25th, 2004? On that evening, the second of two Mars rovers was making its descent into the cold, thin Martian air. This was the first probe whose landing site was dictated by surface mineral type. The mineral is hematite, an Iron oxide mineral that normally forms in hot water here on Earth.

Since the primary mission of the rovers was to uncover direct evidence of liquid water in Mars’ past, the selection of this landing site, a place called ‘meridiani planum’, was a natural choice. It helped too that this site was near the Martian equator, so the solar panels that power Opportunity would have good Sun to work with. It was also flat, but no one had any idea just HOW flat it would really be! Opportunity landed successfully, and took its first of more than 145.000 images of Mars. Those first black and white images showed that Opportunity has landed in a crater roughly the size of the kickoff circle on a Soccer (football) field! Not only that, but at one end of this small crater there was a 2-foot tall cliff of layered rocks! This was the first time any of the landers had seen sediments on Mars. The next discovery Opportunity made was just as splendid.

There were millions of small, ball-shaped objects littering the ground around Opportunity. This, it turns out, is the hematite. The mission science team nicknamed these small spheres blueberries. Next, there were cross-beds in the rocks, and ripple marks, indicating a shoreline on the edge of a body of liquid water. The evidence for liquid water was now confirmed. Mars was warmer and wetter in its distant past!

Over the last 7 years, Opportunity has travelled over 16.55 miles, or almost 27 Kilometers! She has driven into and out of 5 craters, and is meandering across the plains of Meridiani to a sixth-Endeavor crater. Along the way, she documents continuing evidence of that liquid water past in this part of Mars-and the blueberries remain everywhere around her wheels! Layered sedimentary rocks present themselves wherever she goes, and she has also found 3 meteorites, and several chunks of Martian crust blasted from deep within Mars by these impacts.

Opportunity carries aboard her a suite of geological instruments, including the equivalent of a rock hammer (a dremmel-like instrument called the rock abrasion tool, or RAT), 3 spectrometers, and a microscope. The next Mars rover, Curiosity, will carry on board more sophisticated instruments for detecting life and other chemical processes on Mars. My favorite instrument is a LASER that is capable of vaporizing rock 20 feet away from Curiosity (how cool is that?)! Currently, 4 landing sites are being considered as ‘finalists’ for this mission. If you want to learn more about the decision process, and perhaps even contribute to the discussion, there is a website: http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov/landingsiteselection/

So why do we explore Mars? To quote J.F. Kennedy; “…Not because it is easy, but because it is hard…!” Our civilization is built on the trails blazed by explorers. We explore because we are the ones that can. The nations of the world that have chosen to explore space enrich our lives in ways we are still grasping at understanding. Of course, the question gets asked; “How much does all of this cost?” For those of us that pay taxes in the USA, who funded the Mars rover missions, the combined cost of exploring with Spirit and Opportunity is less than .01$ a year. I can’t think of a better ‘bang for the buck’. To quote Buzz Aldrin, “Mars is there, waiting to be reached.” And with our economy is such wretched shape, what better than an ‘Apollo-scale’ human mission to Mars? The potential for job creation, cooperation, and exploration is huge! And a much better use of our time, talent, and treasure in my opinion.

Sources of information for this podcast include the planetary society’s Mars Exploration Rover Update, written by A.J.S. Rayl, and of course, the JPL Mars mission pages, at marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov
Roll on Opportunity, roll on!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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