April 24, 2024

How NASA’s Twin Rovers Transformed Mars Science

NASA Mars Opportunity Sees Its Own Shadow

Opportunity sees its own shadow: NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers landed on the Red Planet on January 3 and 24, 2004, respectively. This image shows a view captured by Opportunity of its own shadow on July 26 of that year, the 180th Martian day, or sol, of its mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Spirit and Opportunity’s landing on Spirit and Opportunity 20th Anniversary Poster

Spirit & Opportunity 20th Anniversary Poster: On the 20th anniversary of the landing of Spirit and Opportunity, celebrate NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project with this double-sided poster that lists some of the accomplishments of pioneering explorers on the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Download poster

A lasting legacy

Thanks in part to the science gathered by Spirit and Opportunity, NASA approved the development of the SUV-sized Curiosity rover to investigate whether the chemical ingredients that sustain life were present billions of years ago in what once was. it was a water world. (The rover discovered shortly after its 2012 landing that it did.)

Perseverance, which arrived at the Red Planet in 2021, is building on Curiosity’s success in collecting rock cores that could be brought to Earth to check for signs of ancient microbial life through the Mars Sample Return campaign, a joint effort by NASA and the ESA (
Using images shot in     The Opportunity Marathon Journey

This illustration shows some highlights along the route as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove up a marathon race during the first 11 years and two months after its January 2004 landing in Eagle Crater.
The rover surpassed the marathon distance of 26,219 miles (42,195 kilometers) with a journey completed on March 24, 2015, during the 3,968th Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity’s work on Mars. For this map, north is on the left.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CornellUniv./USGS/Arizona State Univ.

“This was a paradigm shift that no one expected,” said former project manager John Callas of JPL. “The distance and timescale we covered was a leap in scope that is truly historic.”

The opportunity to see so much was essential in revealing that Mars was not only a wetter world, but also that it supported many different types of aquatic environments – freshwater, hot springs, acidic and salty pools – at different points in its history.

Continuous inspiration

The roaming twins would also inspire a new generation of scientists. One of them was Abigail Fraeman, a high school student invited to JPL the night of Opportunity’s landing. She could see the excitement when the first signal returned, confirming that Opportunity had landed safely.

She would pursue a career as a Mars geologist, returning to JPL years later to help lead Opportunity’s science team. Now deputy project scientist for Curiosity, Fraeman calls many of the people she met the night of Opportunity’s landing her closest colleagues.

Artist's concept of the Rover on Mars

Artist’s concept of one of the Mars exploration vehicles: This concept art depicts one of NASA’s Mars exploration vehicles on the Red Planet. The twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004 and lasted years beyond their expected 90-day mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The people who have kept our twin rovers running all these years are an extraordinary group, and it is remarkable how many have made exploring Mars their career,” said Fraeman. “I feel so lucky to be able to work with them every day as we continue to venture into places no human being has ever seen in our attempt to answer some of the biggest questions.”

More about the mission

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, managed the Mars Exploration Rover Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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