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Photos: Greatest hits from Mars rovers

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  1. Practice run

    JPL engineers Eric Aguilar, left, and Joe Melko monitor the rover's performance on a sandy slope outside JPL's In-Situ Instrument Lab. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Blastoff to Mars

    A Delta 2 Heavy rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 7, 2003. The rocket launched the Opportunity rover toward Mars. (Boeing via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Look at that!

    Principal rover scientist Steve Squyres points at Martian snapshots displayed on a big screen at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, beamed back from the Red Planet just after the Spirit rover's landing on Jan. 3, 2004. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, at right, and mission team members watch as the images are added. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Leaving the nest

    NASA's Spirit rover looks back at its own lander platform early Jan. 15, 2004, just after the mission team sent the robot out for its first spin on Martian soil. Spent air bags are crumpled along the sides of the platform. At the top of the image, the view is mirrored by the bottom of the rover's solar arrays. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Rover's footprint

    This image, taken by NASA's Opportunity rover and released Jan. 28, 2004, shows the "footprint" left by one of the rover's inflated air bags as the spacecraft bounced to its resting place on Martian soil. The circular region of the flowerlike feature is about the size of a basketball. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In memoriam

    NASA's Spirit rover took this picture of a plaque commemorating the fallen astronauts of the Columbia shuttle mission, which ended in disaster in February 2003. The 6-inch-wide plaque is mounted on the back of Spirit's high-gain antenna. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. RAT bites

    This image, taken by the Opportunity rover on Feb. 28, 2004, shows two holes that allowed scientists to peer into Mars' wet past. The rover's Rock Abrasion Tool, or RAT, drilled the holes (indicated by red circles) into rocks in the region dubbed "El Capitan." An analysis of the drilled rock helped scientists determine that this part of Mars was once drenched in water. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Bedrock beauty

    A mosaic of images from NASA's Opportunity rover shows the rock region dubbed "El Capitan," which lies within a larger outcrop near the rover's landing site. The outcrop represents the first bedrock ever seen up close on Mars. This image was released March 2, 2004. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A scoop of berries

    This microscopic image, taken at the outcrop region dubbed the "Berry Bowl" near the Opportunity rover's landing site, shows spherelike grains of rock or "blueberries." Of particular interest is the blueberry triplet, which indicates these geologic features grew in pre-existing wet sediments. This image was taken March 11, 2004. (NASA / JPL / Cornell) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A last look back

    The "Lion King" panorama, captured by the Opportunity rover March 24 and 26, 2004, is a wide-angle view of Eagle Crater and the surrounding plains. Opportunity's landing platform is visible in the center, with tracks leading out of the crater. (NASA / JPL / Cornell ) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA /JPL / Cornell ) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wide-angle walls

    NASA's Opportunity rover captured this view of "Burns Cliff" within Endurance Crater on Mars during the week of Nov. 13-20, 2004. The rover's solar arrays can be seen at the bottom of this true-color mosaic of 46 images. Because of the wide-angle view, the cliff walls appear to bulge out toward the camera. In reality, the walls form a gently curving, continuous surface. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Martian clouds

    Clouds add drama to the sky above Endurance Crater in this mosaic of frames taken by the navigation camera on NASA's Opportunity rover on the morning of Nov. 16, 2004. The view spans an arc from east on the left to the southwest on the right. These clouds are part of a band that forms near the equator when Mars is near the part of its orbit that is farthest from the sun. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Farewell to Endurance

    After spending six months studying rocks inside Endurance Crater, NASA's Opportunity rover climbed out Dec. 12, 2004, and used its front hazard-avoidance camera to look back across the stadium-sized crater from the rim. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Alien junkyard

    NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity gained this view of its own heat shield during the rover's 325th martian day (Dec. 22, 2004). The main structure from the successfully used shield is to the far left. Additional fragments of the heat shield lie in the upper center of the image. The heat shield's impact mark is visible just above and to the right of the foreground shadow of Opportunity's camera mast. This view is a mosaic of three images taken with the rover's navigation camera. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
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By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 1/3/2005 7:51:37 PM ET 2005-01-04T00:51:37

NASA celebrated the first anniversary of the Spirit rover's landing on Mars on Monday with a birthday candle that wouldn't go out — an apt symbol for an interplanetary mission that already has lasted four times as long as scheduled.

Exactly one year after Spirit's airbag-cushioned touchdown in Mars' Gusev Crater, mission team leaders looked back at the close calls that almost doomed the six-wheeled, golfcart-sized robot, and looked ahead to new scientific surprises.

The day's most celebrated surprise, however, was the fact that Spirit and its twin robot Opportunity, which landed last Jan. 24, were still in fine working order on Mars.

"Little did we know a year ago that we'd be celebrating a year of roving on Mars," Charles Elachi, the director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during Monday's ceremonies at the lab in Pasadena, Calif. "The success of both rovers is tribute to hundreds of talented men and women who have put their knowledge and labor into this team effort."

Elachi invited NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to blow out the candle on the rover's "birthday cake" — but it turned out that the candle was a party gag, engineered to relight itself whenever it was extinguished.

"The rovers absolutely refuse to go away, so we are going to have the candle lit for the whole year," Elachi said as O'Keefe chuckled at the practical joke.

O'Keefe, who is due to leave the space agency later this year, noted that the Mars missions provided the best evidence yet that planet once had a climate that could have sustained life, with saltwater seas that disappeared long ago under circumstances not yet fully understood.

"The climate, the atmosphere of our closest neighbor was once dramatically different and perhaps conducive to life," O'Keefe said. "Understanding why that changed may provide a whole new perspective of our own place in the solar system, in this galaxy and indeed in the broader universe."

Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres, the missions' principal scientific investigator, said it would be up to future Mars probes to figure out whether life actually arose on Mars, and whether some form of life might still exist, perhaps deep underground.

"We've set the future Mars program a direction and a goal to pursue," Squyres said.

Billions and billions of bits
Project manager Jim Erickson recapped the mission's statistics so far: Spirit has traveled 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). Opportunity has gone 1.2 miles (2 kilometers). The rovers have transmitted 62,000 images as well as 86 billion bits of additional data.

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And the adventure continues: Erickson said the rovers are still "in great shape for their age," although he cautioned that "bad things could happen to us at any time."

Over the course of the past year, mission managers found their way around a potentially fatal memory-management problem that temporarily knocked Spirit out of commission, as well as less serious glitches that affected both rovers (a balky wheel on Spirit, a stuck heater on Opportunity).

The solar panels are still in good shape, and the winter nights turned out to be not quite as cold as expected, which helped the rovers conserve power.

Spirit's scientific surprise
The scientific surprises continue as well: Just in the past few days, Spirit has come across "completely different geological material" in a rock called Wishstone, Squyres said. A chemical analysis of the brushed-off rock determined that Wishstone had a surprisingly high phosphorus content. Squyres speculated that the rock might have been formed in a violent event such as a volcanic eruption or meteor impact, with phosphates deposited by water percolating through the rock.

"These are very, very different sorts of rock than what we found at Opportunity," Squyres said.

Squyres said Spirit would look for additional intriguing rocks in the mountainous area it is now exploring. "Some ways of making phosphates involve water, others do not," he explained. "We want to look at more of these rocks to see if we can distinguish between those possible histories."

Spirit would then would be sent to a lookout point to survey its surroundings for bedrock. Such bedrock outcrops provide the best setting for piecing together the area's geological history — just as they did for Opportunity at the very beginning of its mission.

Opportunity heading south
Opportunity is currently studying the remains of its own heat shield, which hit the Martian surface separately from the rover's lander almost a year ago. "With luck, our observations may help to improve our ability to deliver future vehicles to the surface of other planets," Erickson said.

After analyzing the heat shield's fragments, Opportunity will head south to look at what appears to be a "strangely eroded impact crater" called Vostok, Squyres said, then roll further southward to an area of etched terrain that could provide further insights into Mars' geology.

Every day of extra exploration makes the rover missions, which cost $820 million for the initial 90 days, a better bargain for NASA. Firouz Naderi, head of the Mars Exploration Program at JPL, indicated that the missions would likely be extended as long as the machines were still in working order, at a monthly cost of $3 million. "We will manage somehow," he said half-jokingly.

However, the rovers will eventually fall prey to old age and the elements, just as the less capable Pathfinder rover did back in 1997. Squyres acknowledged that it's only a matter of time before the candles are snuffed out for Spirit and Opportunity as well.

"They will have died honorable deaths when it does happen," he said Monday. "It will be sad, but it will be in its own way satisfying."

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