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Celebrating NASA Mars Expeditions

The ringing in of 2013 marks the start of year ten for NASA’s veteran Mars rover, Opportunity. Originally slated to explore the red planet for a limited 90 days, Opportunity has been trekking for a good 3200 Mars days and has covered over 35 km of the terrain. This is equivalent to the first overland expedition conducted on another planet! To appreciate this great achievement by the little-rover-that-could, let’s take a look back at her predecessors and what it took for NASA’s brainchild to come this far.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 of the Viking program of 1975 exemplify some of NASA’s first great Mars exploration successes. Each aircraft consisted of an orbiter and a lander that would detach to explore the surface of Mars. The two crafts were lifted and delivered by Titan III-E rockets. At a little less than a year, the rovers were able to penetrate Mars’ atmosphere and begin their work. Much of our knowledge of Mars during the 90’s came from data and images collected by the Viking crafts.

An image of Martian northern summer NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

The next Mars explorer to be sent the Red Planet’s way was the Mars Pathfinder. Mars Pathfinder also consisted of two parts: the Carl Sagan Memorial Station lander and the rover known as Sojourner. Mars Pathfinder successfully landed in the year 1997 and proceeded to conduct a series of scientific experiments. It analyzed the composition of the surrounding rocks and soil, the atmosphere, and climate – all accomplished under an extremely low cost compared to past attempts at Mars missions. After all, its mission’s running motto was “cheaper, faster, and better.”

Color coding capturing Mar’s topography NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since the Mars Pathfinder, NASA has also sent up the Mars Odyssey, an orbiting spacecraft that will attempt to investigate the planet’s surface for traces of water and even buried ice. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is another craft launched in 2005 that is equipped with a powerful telescopic camera perfect for capturing beautiful, detailed shots of Earth’s neighbor. And most recently, on August 6, 2012, NASA landed the Mars Science Laboratory, which will investigate whether or not Mars was ever capable of supporting microbe life. Exciting progress continues to be made, and with rovers still digging into the past of Mars, much more is yet to come!