In the News
This summer, a global dust storm encircled Mars, blocking much of the vital solar energy that NASA’s Opportunity rover needs to survive. After months of listening for a signal, the agency has declared that the longest-lived rover to explore Mars has come to the end of its mission. Originally slated for a three-month mission, the Opportunity rover lived a whopping 14.5 years on Mars. Opportunity beat the odds many times while exploring the Red Planet, returning an abundance of scientific data that paved the way for future exploration.
Scientists and engineers are celebrating this unprecedented mission success, still analyzing data collected during the past decade and a half and applying lessons learned to the design of future spacecraft. For teachers, this historic mission provides lessons in engineering design, troubleshooting and scientific discovery.
How They Did It
Launched in 2003 and landed in early 2004, the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were the second spacecraft of their kind to land on our neighboring planet.
Explore standards-aligned lessons that bring Mars Exploration Rover science and engineering to students.
Preceded by the small Sojourner rover in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity were substantially larger, weighing about 400 pounds, or 185 kilograms, on Earth (150 pounds, or 70 kilograms, on Mars) and standing about 5 feet tall. The solar-powered rovers were designed for a mission lasting 90 sols, or Mars days, during which they would look for evidence of water on the seemingly barren planet.
Dust in the Wind
Scientists and engineers always hope a spacecraft will outlive its designed lifetime, and the Mars Exploration Rovers did not disappoint. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, expected the lifetime of these sun-powered robots to be limited by dust accumulating on the rovers’ solar panels. As expected, power input to the rovers slowly decreased as dust settled on the panels and blocked some of the incoming sunlight. However, the panels were “cleaned” accidentally when seasonal winds blew off the dust. Several times during the mission, power levels were restored to pre-dusty conditions. Because of these events, the rovers were able to continue their exploration much longer than expected with enough power to continue running all of their instruments.
To troubleshoot and overcome challenges during the rovers’ long mission, engineers would perform tests on a duplicate model of the spacecraft, which remained on Earth for just this purpose. One such instance was in 2005, when Opportunity got stuck in the sand. Its right front wheel dug into loose sand, reaching to just below its axle. Engineers and scientists worked for five weeks to free Opportunity, first using images and spectroscopy obtained by the rover’s instruments to recreate the sand trap on Earth and then placing the test rover in the exact same position as Opportunity. The team eventually found a way to get the test rover out of the sand trap. Engineers tested their commands repeatedly with consistent results, giving them confidence in their solution. The same commands were relayed to Opportunity through NASA’s Deep Space Network, and the patient rover turned its stuck wheel just the right amount and backed out of the trap that had ensnared it for over a month, enabling the mission to continue.
A few years later, in 2009, Spirit wasn’t as lucky. Having already sustained some wheel problems, Spirit got stuck on a slope in a position that would not be favorable for the Martian winter. Engineers were not able to free Spirit before winter took hold, denying the rover adequate sunlight for power. Its mission officially ended in 2011. Meanwhile, despite a troubled shoulder joint on its robotic arm that first started showing wear in 2006, Opportunity continued exploring the Red Planet. It wasn’t until a dust storm completely enveloped Mars in the summer of 2018 that Opportunity finally succumbed to the elements.
The Final Act
Dust storm season on Mars can be treacherous for solar-powered rovers because if they are in the path of the dust storm, their access to sunlight can be obstructed for months on end, longer than their batteries can sustain them. Though several dust storms occurred on Mars during the reign of the Mars Exploration Rovers, 2018 brought a large, thick dust storm that covered the entire globe and shrouded Opportunity’s access to sunlight for four months. Only the caldera of Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system, peeked out above the dust.
The transparency or “thickness” of the dust in Mars’ atmosphere is denoted by the Greek letter tau. The higher the tau, the less sunlight is available to charge a surface spacecraft’s batteries. An average tau for Opportunity’s location is 0.5. The tau at the peak of the 2018 dust storm was 10.8. This thick dust was imaged and measured by the Curiosity Mars rover on the opposite side of the planet. (Curiosity is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator.)
Since the last communication with Opportunity on June 10, 2018, NASA has sent more than 1,000 commands to the rover that have gone unanswered. Each of these commands was an attempt to get Opportunity to send back a signal saying it was alive. A last-ditch effort to reset the rover’s mission clock was met with silence.
Why It’s Important
The Mars Exploration Rovers were designed to give a human-height perspective of Mars, using panoramic cameras approximately 5 feet off the surface, while their science instruments investigated Mars’ surface geology for signs of water. Spirit and Opportunity returned more than 340,000 raw images conveying the beauty of Mars and leading to scientific discoveries. The rovers brought Mars into classrooms and living rooms around the world. From curious geologic formations to dune fields, dust devils and even their own tracks on the surface of the Red Planet, the rovers showed us Mars in a way we had never seen it before.
The rovers discovered that Mars was once a warmer, wetter world than it is today and was potentially able to support microbial life. Opportunity landed in a crater and almost immediately discovered deposits of hematite, which is a mineral known to typically form in the presence of water. During its travels across the Mars surface, Spirit found rocks rich in magnesium and iron carbonates that likely formed when Mars was warm and wet, and sustained a near-neutral pH environment hospitable to life. At one point, while dragging its malfunctioning wheel, Spirit excavated 90 percent pure silica lurking just below the sandy surface. On Earth, this sort of silica usually exists in hot springs or hot steam vents, where life as we know it often finds a happy home. Later in its mission, near the rim of Endeavor crater, Opportunity found bright-colored veins of gypsum in the rocks. These veins likely formed when water flowed through underground fractures in the rocks, leaving calcium behind. All of these discoveries lead scientists to believe that Mars was once more hospitable to life than it is today, and they laid the groundwork for future exploration.
Imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, both orbiting the Red Planet, has been combined with surface views and data from the Mars Exploration Rovers for an unprecedented understanding of the planet’s geology and environment.
Not only did Spirit and Opportunity add to our understanding of Mars, but also the rovers set the stage for future exploration. Following in their tracks, the Curiosity rover landed in 2012 and is still active, investigating the planet’s surface chemistry and geology, and confirming the presence of past water. Launching in 2020 is the next Mars rover, currently named Mars 2020. Mars 2020 will be able to analyze soil samples for signs of past microbial life. It will carry a drill that can collect samples of interesting rocks and soils, and set them aside in a cache on the surface of Mars. In the future, those samples could be retrieved and returned to Earth by another mission. Mars 2020 will also do preliminary research for future human missions to the Red Planet, including testing a method of producing oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere.
It’s thanks to three generations of surface-exploring rovers coupled with the knowledge obtained by orbiters and stationary landers that we have a deeper understanding of the Red Planet’s geologic history and can continue to explore Mars in new and exciting ways.
Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get students doing engineering, troubleshooting and scientific discovery just like NASA scientists and engineers!
Mars in a Minute
These 60-second videos answer some of the most frequently asked questions about our planetary neighbor, Mars, and the spacecraft that explore it.
Time 1 min
Robotic Arm Challenge
In this challenge, students will use a model robotic arm to move items from one location to another. They will engage in the engineering design process to design, build and operate the arm.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
In this cross-curricular STEM and language arts lesson, students learn about planets, stars and space missions and write STEM-inspired poetry to share their knowledge of or inspiration about these topics.
Time 1-2 hrs
Exploring the Colors of Mars
Students use satellite and rover images to learn about the various features and materials that cause color variation on the surface of Mars, then create their own “Marscape.”
Time 1-2 hrs
Mission to Mars Unit
In this standards-aligned unit, students learn about Mars, design a mission to explore the planet, build and test model spacecraft and components, and engage in scientific exploration.
Planetary Pasta Rovers
Using only pasta and glue, students design a rover that will travel down a one-meter ramp and then travel an additional one meter on a smooth, flat surface.
Time 1-2 hrs
Explore Mars With Scratch
Students learn about surface features on Mars, then use a visual programming language to create a Mars exploration game.
Time 1-2 hrs
Mars Marathon: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
In this illustrated math problem, students use the mathematical constant pi to calculate how many times the Mars rover Opportunity's wheels rotated to get the rover to a marathon distance.
Time < 30 mins
Looking for Life
Using the fundamental criteria for life, students examine simulated extraterrestrial soil samples for signs of life.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Design a Crew Exploration Vehicle
Students will design, build and test a crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, to carry astronauts to Mars – meeting size, mass and payload requirements.
Time 1-2 hrs
In these lessons, students program a rover to complete various challenges.
Time > 2 hrs
Collecting Light: Inverse Square Law Demo
In this activity, students learn how light and energy are spread throughout space. The rate of change can be expressed mathematically, demonstrating why spacecraft like NASA’s Juno need so many solar panels.
Time < 30 mins
Where Do Spacecraft Get Their Power?
This whiteboard video describes how "radioisotope power" allows many spacecraft, such as NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars, to stay powered while traveling through space and exploring other planets.
Time < 30 mins
- NASA Mars Exploration Website: Mars Exploration Rovers
- Mission Highlights and Resources
- Send a Postcard to Opportunity
- Top Science Results
- Infographic: Off-World Driving Distances
- Infographic: Opportunity By the Numbers
- Iconic Images
- Living on Mars Time
Try these related resources for students from NASA’s Space Place