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
In 1975, 10-year-old Nagin Cox’s home life was unraveling. It was a time when Cox grew up hearing that girls were “worthless” and thought only about making it to age 18 so she could be free.
“I remember looking up at the stars and thinking, ‘I’m going to live and get through this,” Cox, now a spacecraft systems engineer for Mars 2020 recalls. “I need to set a goal. I need something so meaningful it will help me get through the next eight years.'”
That goal revealed itself when she was 14, a curly-haired Indian girl fascinated by “Star Trek” and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” She wanted to explore the universe. And no, she didn't want to be an astronaut.
“If you really want to go where someone has never been, you want to be with the robots. They truly explore first,” she says. “There was one place that did that consistently and that was NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”
She just needed to figure out how.
When the offer letter arrived from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Kiana Williams could hardly believe it. Thousands of science and engineering students apply each year for internships at the lab known for its dare-anything missions to the planets and beyond. Williams never expected it would be her first internship.
“It actually took me about a week to accept that it was a real offer and that I’d actually be coming to intern at NASA/JPL,” she said.
Mechanical engineering student Kiana Williams grew up near JPL in Southern California, but she never thought to apply for an internship until JPL's Education Office visited her university in Alabama. Now, a first-time intern, she says she realizes, "Oh, I can do this." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This summer, Williams is joining more than 700 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students for internships at JPL in Pasadena, California. Over 10 weeks, they will design new ways to study stars, investigate icy moons thought to be hospitable to life, and even help choose a landing spot for the next Mars rover.
“I get the opportunity to design an entire space telescope from top to bottom,” said Williams, a senior mechanical engineering student at Tuskegee University in Alabama. “It’s kind of a big task, but at the same time it’s fun, so it makes my day go really quickly.”
One of 10 NASA field centers, JPL is the birthplace of spacecraft and instruments that have explored every planet in the solar system, studied our home planet and looked beyond to discover new worlds. It doesn’t just design and build spacecraft, it also operates them, and collects and studies the science they return.
“It’s the only place in the world where everyone needed to conceive of, design, build, launch and land spacecraft, get the science data and write the papers about that science data are all in one place,” said Matt Golombek, a JPL scientist whose interns over the years have helped choose the landing sites for all five Mars rovers and landers since Pathfinder in 1997.
The lab’s internship programs give students studying everything from aerospace engineering to computer science and chemistry the chance to do research with NASA scientists, build spacecraft, and create new technology for future missions.
With more than 20 active spacecraft plus a to-do list that includes missions to Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa and the asteroid belt, JPL has no shortage of projects ripe for students who are eager for careers in space exploration.
Nirmal Patel says that in addition to the wow-factor of testing parts for a Mars rover, his JPL internship is a chance to meet other engineers and scientists all united in a common goal. "Here, everyone wants to explore. And when you have that common goal, it has a different atmosphere," he said. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
“It’s just amazing knowing that what we’re doing now will also be replicated on Mars in a few years,” said Nirmal Patel, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Michigan who is testing parts for the Mars 2020 rover. “It’s surreal almost. I’m still a student but I’m getting to have an impact on this project.”
David Dubois, a three-time intern who studies planetary science at the University of Versailles Saint Quentin near Paris, returned to JPL this summer to continue his research on icy moons around Saturn, Jupiter and Neptune. Using data from the Cassini mission (which will end its nearly 13-year mission at Saturn this September) he is modeling the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan to better understand its chemical environment – and maybe discover if it could support life.
He says that in addition to access to one-of-a-kind data directly from spacecraft, JPL offers the opportunity to explore new fields of science and even career paths, if students are open to it.
“Being open is certainly something that I’ve learned from JPL, not being afraid of tackling different problems in different fields,” said Dubois, who is about to publish his first paper as a lead author based on his research at JPL.
When he's not doing research, David Dubois says he focuses much of his time on outreach, which is one of his other passions. This year, he traveled to India with a friend to visit schools and villages and encourage students there to pursue science. "I like to say that I think anybody is a scientist," he said, "as long as you try to provide an answer to questions around you." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s precisely that exposure to its unique career offerings in science, technology, engineering and math – and a foot in the door – that JPL’s Education Office, which manages the lab’s internship programs, is working to provide to more students.
“Our students are operating right alongside the mentors and participating in the discovery process,” said Adrian Ponce, who manages JPL’s higher education group. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for them, and it’s also a great opportunity for JPL. Our internship programs are designed to bring in students from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented communities who share new ways of thinking and analyzing challenges. Many of them will become the next generation of innovators – and not just at JPL.”
For Williams, who plans to continue toward a master’s degree in design engineering after she graduates in December, her time at JPL is confirmation that she’s on the right path and has the motivation to keep going.
“It makes me feel like school is worth it,” said Williams of her internship experience so far. “All the stress I’m going through at school will be worth it because you can find places that are like JPL, that make your job fun.”
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
Update – Feb. 24, 2017: The deadline for the Cassini Scientist for a Day Essay Contest has passed. The winners will be announced in May 2017.
In the News
Next week, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will go where no spacecraft has gone before when it flies just past the edge of Saturn’s main rings. The maneuver is a first for the spacecraft, which has spent more than 12 years orbiting the ringed giant planet. And it’s part of a lead-up to a series of increasingly awesome feats that make up the mission’s “Grand Finale” ending with Cassini’s plunge into Saturn on Sept. 15, 2017.
How They’ll Do It
Cassini's ring-grazing orbits, which will take place from late Novemeber 2016 through April 2017, are shown here in tan. The blue lines represent the path that Cassini took in the time leading up to the new orbits during its extended solstice mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute | › Larger image
To prepare for the so-called “ring-grazing orbits,” which will bring the spacecraft within 56,000 miles (90,000 km) of Saturn, Cassini engineers have been slowly adjusting the spacecraft’s orbit since January. They do this by flying Cassini near Saturn’s large moon Titan. The moon’s gravity pulls on the spacecraft, changing its direction and speed.
On November 29, Cassini will use a big gravitational pull from Titan to get into an orbit that is closer to perpendicular with respect to the rings of Saturn and its equator. This orbit will send the spacecraft slightly higher above and below Saturn’s north and south poles, and allow it to get as close as the outer edge of the main rings – a region as of yet unexplored by Cassini.
This graphic illustrates the Cassini spacecraft's trajectory, or flight path, during the final two phases of its mission. The view is toward Saturn as seen from Earth. The 20 ring-grazing orbits are shown in gray; the 22 grand finale orbits are shown in blue. The final partial orbit is colored orange. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute | › Larger image
Why It’s Important
Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits will allow scientists to see features in Saturn's rings, up close, that they’ve only been able to observe from afar. The spacecraft will get so close to the rings, in fact, that it will pass through the dusty edges of the F ring, Saturn’s narrow, outermost ring. At that distance, Cassini will be able to study the rings like never before.
Among the firsts will be a “taste test” of Saturn’s rings from the inside out, during which Cassini will sample the faint gases surrounding the rings as well as the particles that make up the F ring. Cassini will also capture some of the best high-resolution images of the rings, and our best views of the small moons Atlas, Pan, Daphnis and Pandora, which orbit near the rings' outer edges. Finally, the spacecraft will do reconnaissance work needed to safely carry out its next planned maneuver in April 2017, when Cassini is scheduled to fly through the 1,500-mile (2,350-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its rings.
These orbits are a great example of scientific research in action. Much of what scientists will be seeing in detail during these ring-grazing orbits are features that, despite Cassini’s 12 years at Saturn, have remained a mystery. These new perspectives could help answer questions scientists have long puzzled over, but they will also certainly lead to new questions to add to our ongoing exploration of the ringed giant.
As part of the Cassini Scientist for a Day Essay Contest, students in grades 5-12 will write an essay describing which of these three targets would provide the most interesting scientific results. › Learn more and enter
What better way to share in the excitement of Cassini’s exploration than to get students thinking like NASA scientists and writing about their own questions and curiosities?
NASA’s Cassini Scientist for a Day Essay Contest, open to students in grades 5-12, encourages students to do just that. Participants research three science and imaging targets and then write an essay on which target would provide the most interesting scientific results, explaining what they hope to learn from the selected target. Winners of the contest will be featured on NASA’s Solar System Exploration website and get an opportunity to speak with Cassini scientists and engineers via video conference in the spring.
More information, contest rules and videos can be found here.
The deadline to enter is Feb. 24, 2017.
- Find educational lessons and activities about Saturn
- Discover free educational materials and resources about Saturn
- Students can discover more about Saturn with these slideshows, games and videos
- Download this timeline featuring milestones from Cassini's mission at Saturn or explore the interactive version!
- Explore the Cassini mission to Saturn website
- Browse our Cassini news archive
UPDATE - Sept. 9, 2015: Registration for “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard InSight is now closed. Visit the Send Your Name website to be alerted to future opportunities. The next chance to send your name to Mars will be aboard Exploration Mission 1.
Send your name to Mars on NASA's next journey to the Red Planet! Visit the Fly Your Name page by September 8 to have your name added to a silicon microchip headed to the Red Planet aboard NASA's InSight Mars lander.
The InSight mission is scheduled to land on Mars on Sept. 28, 2016 to investigate the deep interior and seismology of the planet. This is the first time such a study has been done on Mars and scientists are hoping it will uncover important details about Martian quakes, the interior structure of Mars and the evolution of all rocky planets, including Earth.
Participants in this fly-your-name opportunity will earn "frequent-flier" points as part of NASA's Journey to Mars campaign. Started with the December 2014 flight of NASA's Orion spacecraft, the campaign offers several opportunities to send your name to Mars -- and collect points -- on NASA missions preparing for human exploration of the Red Planet.
Each summer, NASA's Planetary Science Summer School program brings a team of distinguished postdocs and graduate students to the laboratory to learn what its
like to design a space mission. Watch how the talented team puts together a mission concept in just five days.