Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity

Following the success of the Mars Pathfinder project in 1997, there was a resurgence of interest in the deployment of an untethered rover on the surface of Mars. The concept of a semi-autonomous and freely roving vehicle was mooted as a follow-on to the Viking missions of the late 1970s. Almost twenty years were to pass before a rover was to be operated on Mars. After the Mars Pathfinder mission, NASA had proposed to send a rover equipped with a geology/ chemistry payload, dubbed the 'Athena' suite, to Mars in 2001. Various constraints led to the redesign of the mission for a 2003 launch, although experiments of the payload were carried on the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander. In 2000 the Mars Exploration Rover mission was selected, with a launch-date flight three years later. This time, the Athena payload was to be duplicated, carried on two identical 174kg rovers. Designated MER-A and MER-B, the spacecraft carrying the rovers were launched to Mars on separate Delta 2 boosters, making use of the favourable 2003 window for low-energy trajectories. The rovers on each craft were targeted to different regions of Mars. The MER-A craft, carrying the 'Spirit' rover, arrived on 4 January 2004 and was directed toward Gusev crater (14.5°S, 175.5°E) in the Aeolis region of Mars. This crater is the terminus of the fluid-cut Ma'adim Vallis, and Gusev was thought to host geological clues to the presence of water on Mars. The second craft to be launched, MER-B, arrived 21 days later and carried the 'Opportunity' rover to the Meridiani Planum area, landing at 2°S, 6°W.

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