An Article In Meteorite-Times Magazine
by Martin Horejsi of  Martin Horejsi's Meteorite and Tektite Books

Roving The Red Planet:

"Inspiring the next generation of only NASA can."

For the meteorite enthusiasts, the month of January brought us three steps closer to ground truth. First Stardust claimed its cometary treasure and began its two year journey back to earth (something I wrote about in the 2000 May issue of Meteorite Magazine). Then the pair of Mars rovers successfully landed on Martian soil. And no doubt their science data dumps will yet again force a rewriting of the textbooks.

In this month's Accretion Desk, I thought I would take you behind the scenes to some of the magic of the rovers. I've had the pleasure to meet many of the scientists who designed and built the rovers, those in charge of the instruments, and the lucky few who are running the missions. Here are some snapshots taken along the way.

Down memory lane: On July 4th, 1997, NASA landed the Pathfinder spacecraft containing the six-wheeled Sojourner rover. The cute child-sized crawler captured the hearts and dreams of the world. Here, in the JPL Mars Yard, a radio-controlled scale model of the rover is out for a spin. The old "back lot" Mars Yard of rocks, sand, and spray-painted walls has now been replaced with a beautiful new Mars building.


This backup wheel is actual flight-certified hardware. Had there been two Sojourner-type rovers launched to Mars, this frame and wheelset would be sitting on martian soil rather than in my hand.


Ouch! If the rover wandered over any little critters on Mars, I can say with experience that it would hurt. The torquey-little motors driving the wheels don't take no for an answer, and while the rocks of Mars are somewhat different from my sock, there is no doubt that Sojourner is real climber.


The Rocky-7 was another experimental river that was all part of the learning curve ending with our current MERs, Spirit and Opportunity.


In the new Mars building at the JPL, Mars is simulated in order to run the rover through accurate testing. Here is a model of the MER with me for scale.

The pancam really is a human's-eye view of Mars. Since I am roughly human-sized you can see the pancam's lenses are not much lower than mine. And although the MERs are bigger than Sojourner, they are still too small to ride on regardless of the golf cart size comparison. Either way, I don't plan on donating my foot to another drive-over experiment.


With the dim colored lights simulating Mars, it was all too easy to imagine the rover on Mars..



Using a rather crude mockup of a MER, it was possible to test it to the point of failure. Here a MER-like rover sits on a simulated landing pad complete with deflated airbags.


The drive-off testing is extensive. Each possible direction off the petals was explored. While it might be painfully slow to get off the landing platform, it must be done right because it can not be done twice. There is no AAA on Mars...yet.


The folks at the JPL have plenty of experience driving on airbags so they know firsthand that it is something to be avoided.


Once off the landing platform, it seems all the tough driving is over. Duct tape and dents testify to the degree to which this rover has gone through no-holds barred testing.


Now to the real rovers. This is the MER assembly cleanroom at the JPL where the rovers and the landing craft were under assembly.


The real McCoy. Under construction is MER-a or is it MER-b? Hard to tell without its clothes on. It is also hard to work on it without touching it.


There is no shortage of problems to solve when building a spacecraft. Unfortunately there is no perfect way to do anything. Sometimes I agree that JPL really does stand for "Just Plain Lucky!"


Here are the petals of the landing platform. I sure wish my car was made as well as these components. The detail is amazing, but I guess $450 million should buy a quality product.


Looking up at the rover's end of the cruse stage of the spacecraft. On one side, this 2.65m aluminum ring connected to the landing stage and and life-giving solar panelson the other side. Just before entering the martian atmosphere, this cruse stage seperated from the landing craft effectively cutting the size of the spacecraft in half.


A sundial on Mars? Yup, well two of them actually. Bill Nye (yea, the Science Guy) suggested that an interplanetary sundial is a good idea. Don't believe me, then you can read about it here. This is an unfinished version of what sprouts from the back of each of the rovers. I think they would be a popular paperweight if sold in stores. Here is a link to the finished product.


My fondness for the rovers would not be complete without a trip out to NASA's communications central called the Deep Space Network. The 70m antenna behind me is one of many dishes used to talk to Mars.


The Accretion Desk welcomes all comments and feedback.