Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Red Planet Roamers: The Mighty Mars Rovers by Elizabeth Rusch

"Can you build two?"

"Two what?" Steve asked.

NASA wanted two rockets, two landers, two rovers, two of everything. The two Mars Exploration Rovers would be identical but land on opposite sides of the planet.... Two would double the chances of success....

Ever since Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds created interest in life on Earth’s sister planet, people have speculated upon whether life could exist or ever have existed on the red planet.

Not until the beginning of this century, however, have scientists actually had the knowledge and engineering skills to try to find out for sure. But what was required was information about the atmosphere and the possibility of water on the planet. And when NASA offered this opportunity, Steven Squyres jumped at the chance to try to answer the question of life-as-we-know-it-sustaining water on this seemingly barren world.

“Our schedule was impossible.”

“It was so complicated that not a single one of us fully understood what was going on.”

This mission was the most complex of all NASA enterprises. Not only did the scientists have to plan rocket flights capable of orbiting Mars, landers capable of setting down their cargoes with their complex devices intact, but also engineer two Mars rovers capable of movement around that rough and inhospitable surface, means of communication back and forth which enabled the vehicles to sample the geology of the surface and return visual and coded data back to Earth, and capable of survival for what seemed a daringly long mission on the surface, generating their own power through solar cells and enduring the dust, high winds, and deep cold of Mars as they carried out their mission.

The little Mars rovers, christened “Spirit” and “Opportunity” by nine-year-old Sofi Collis, exceeded all expectations, landing on opposite sides of the planet and carrying out hundreds of investigations and experiments. Made to function for three months at best, the rovers, looking like bulked-up skateboards with wings, a long neck, and a little Wall-E face, sported remote-controlled cameras capable of sending back up-close images of even grains of sand upon that planet’s surface.

They did the work of geologists, meteorologists, chemists, photographers, mountain climbers, and crater trekkers. Spirit explored high into the Columbia Hills, scaling a 30-degree incline and reaching the 269-foot summit of Husband Hill, highest point in the range. Opportunity explored deep into Eagle, Endurance, and Victoria Craters.

“The rovers are our surrogates, our robotic precursors to a world that, as humans, we still are not quite ready to visit. But in the end, what I really want more than anything else, is boot prints in our wheel tracks.”

Perhaps some young readers of Elizabeth Rusch’s forthcoming The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) will be the ones to leave their boot prints on the surface of Mars. This latest in Houghton's noted Scientists in the Field series shows the creators of the Mars rovers in a new sort of “field work,” chronicling the drama that occurs in the engineering lab, both the day-to-day struggles and triumphs, and those final high dramas when Spirit and Opportunity came to life and started sending back our first glimpses of those other worlds which have long fired the human imagination.

"Enthralling . . . How extraordinary to visit Mars in Spirit; readers will be very glad of the Opportunity." quips Kirkus, in its starred review.

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