Growing Up With the Mars Rovers

Ashley Stroupe
by Ashley Stroupe
Robotics Engineer

I am not supposed to be here, working with the Mars Exploration Rovers. There wasn’t supposed to be a Mars Rover here for me to work on. I arrived at JPL less than a month before Spirit’s landing in January 2004. Long before I earned the privilege of working on such a project, the three-month mission (six if we were lucky) would be completed. Robots are intricate machines, and Mars is a harsh place. Neither Spirit nor Opportunity should be here - and, as a result, neither should I be here to talk about them. Five years on Mars - inconceivable! But somehow, Spirit, Opportunity and I are celebrating our fifth anniversaries within a few weeks of each other. We’ve grown up together, in a way.

I have been working with the rovers for almost four and a half of their five years. I’ve discovered that Spirit and Opportunity are more than just a couple of robots or tools - they are a grand vision, a shared dream. A dream so powerful and so compelling that even those who come late to it, as I did, are fully invested. I look around at the room as I write this and I see people who have been here from the beginning (or even before the beginning from Pathfinder days in 1997) and I see the newest generations - those I have helped to train and with whom I have shared the vision. This dream is large enough for all of us.

This is a partial view of a spectacular image from Spirit atop “Husband Hill.” The rover tracks were my “first” on Mars.
Full image

Most engineers build a product and give it to the user. But those of us working on the Mars program are lucky enough to continue working with the scientists and get a real sense of the great purpose of what we do. We are an integral part of contributing to our understanding of the universe around us. I often step back and realize how truly fortunate I am, working on this amazing project with these remarkable, talented people.

This team of people is a family, and the rovers are our children. And, like parents of adult children who have moved away, we worry, we try to keep them safe, we try to teach them what we know and we give them guidance. Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t. But together, we’ve made amazing discoveries. Once Mars was a warmer place, a wetter place, a more Earthlike place - something we could only infer indirectly before. And it’s still a beautiful place with strangely colored sunsets that remind us we’re looking at another world.

Now, experience has matured us. And aged us. We have faced a lot of challenges. Racing to find places to survive harsh Martian winters, climbing mountains and crater walls, riding out dust storms, and working around arthritic body parts (broken wheels and failing arm joints). There have been sleepless nights and new gray hairs. But as Spirit and Opportunity begin long journeys to new places, we remember our starry-eyed youth and still nothing seems entirely out of reach. Five years on Mars? That’s just the beginning.

    11 Responses to “Growing Up With the Mars Rovers”

  1. Bill Reddin Says:
    January 21st, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    I am writing to say congratulation to The Mars Exploration Team [MER]; and for five years of Exploring Mars with the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. I have read the following:
    ExUnlike the landing sites of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers near the planet’s equator, there are no soils with sulfur compounds, or sulfates, in the part of Mars, where Phoenix Landed. Spirit and Opportunity found that the soils at their landing sites were cemented together with sulfur compounds. Sulfates do not act as cementing chemicals where Phoenix landed in the Martian arctic. The Astrobiologists must be puzzeled by this,and its implications for life.

    Bill Reddin
    Rep of Ire…

  2. Jim Bell Says:
    January 22nd, 2009 at 6:26 am

    I’ve been following the rovers at since that site launched. It’s been wonderful to watch this 90 day mission! Thanks for the article and lets hope for another “Cleaning Event” so we can share more interesting experiences from Spirit and Opportunity. As a “Layman” the one thing i miss is some sort of definitive (and understandable) conclusions, on the above web site, saying exactly what we have learned from the rovers investigations. Thanks for the article. Jim Bell (N.S.W. Australia)

  3. Saket Singh Kaurav Says:
    January 22nd, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I have been following Phoenix mission since its launching…my name is there in DVD..So i would like to congrats to MARS exploration Team for such wonderful and purpose full exploration after previous missions like Spirit & Opportunity. Good Luck for future mission as well..It doesn’t necessary that any how we should find result sometimes in research we want to find something but we find new thing, which changes the our thinking and way of exploring,So it is the best way to go there and explore with our smart machines like these rovers.
    Best of Luck to All JPL’s Mars Mission Team

    Saket Singh Kaurav
    Junior Research Fellow,
    Infrared Astronomy Group,
    Dept. Astronomy & Astrophysics,
    Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai,

  4. Robert Liebersbach Says:
    January 22nd, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    As a former MER employee I too grew up Mars and working on that project has been unlike anything I have experienced. I still find myself checking up on the mission; as one can never truly leave MER. Thanks for the post and keep on rolling.

  5. Norm Says:
    January 22nd, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    Thank you for sharing what you do :)

  6. Savan Chhaniyara, Says:
    January 23rd, 2009 at 5:52 am

    I begin my masters study in Mechatronics 2004-2005, and MER robotics rovers have inspired me to purse my masters project during 2004 for identifying Rover slip autonomously. During that time rover were facing problem of skidding and there was no autonomous technique to identify it. Fortunately, it inspired me and work on this research area. Currently, I am doing PhD in robotics and for self localization.

    I heartily wish congratulations to everyone involved with MER rover project. It’s the project which inspired many people like me and advances our knowledge of technology and universe around us.

    Thank you all for providing regular updates about this project and technical data to the public.

    Best regards,
    Savan Chhaniyara
    PhD student,
    KCL , UK

  7. Frank Wiesenmeyer Says:
    January 23rd, 2009 at 8:33 am

    Dear Ashley:
    Thank you for your updates on Spirit and Opportunity. Being able to follow the results of their 5 years of Mars exploration on the surface, is a dream come true for me. I have been intensely interested in Mars since my preteen years. Although my career path was Electrical Engineering and Electronics Education, my love of Mars and space exploration has never diminished. I have had the privelege of working with an aging spacecraft, AMSAT OSCAR 7, an amateur radio satellite launched in Nov 1974 into a 1460 km sun synchronous orbit, and designed for HF, VHF & UHF amateur radio communication. After a successful 6 year primary mission, OSCAR 7 came back to life in June 2002, when an open in the NiCd battery allowed the spacecraft to operate again with power from the solar arrays. As of today, it is still operating almost as good as when it was new. It has been very exciting to use a satellite that is now 35 years old and still going strong. I was fortunate to have been a user of AO-7 in it’s first life in 1978. I mention this story of an aging amateur radio bird, to let you know that we radio amateurs have had a taste of the excitement the professional aerospace engineeres are having with the Mars rovers. The intent of the OSCAR series of spacecraft, now at over 64 missions, is to expose students to the thrill of space exploration with an actual hands on satellite that they can learn to use in the class room and at home. Many of these satellites have been launced as secondary payloads on NASA DELTA rockets. Unfortunately, in recent years, launches for educational satellites have just about dried up. Hopefully, that will change someday soon. Again, my heartfelt thanks to you and all the members of your team for your dedication to the Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which has allowed countless numbers of space enthusiasts to share in the results of your exploration of Mars and fulfill a dream that many of us have had for most of our lifetime: to see what Mars would look like standing on the surface and learning what it is made of and if it’s history that is unfolding now would answer the question of life evolving on Mars.

    Frank M. Wiesenmeyer
    Prof. Emeritus Electronics Technology
    Richland Community College
    Decatur, IL USA

  8. Guillermo Says:
    January 25th, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Congratulations for your great work, and contratulations for this 5 years on Mars. I think that you and your team are the truth heroes that have keep the 2 rovers for all this time in Mars.

    Thanks for your work.

    Guillermo Lazcano

  9. tom works Says:
    January 27th, 2009 at 11:38 am

    I am not a scientist or even an engineer. I’m just a fan and I am in awe of these rovers and what they’ve accomplished and been through. amazing! i visit the site once a week and come away rewarded every time. If only the rovers had little fans that could blow off the accumulated dust, we could see them do even more. Oh, and wheels that could just free roll when their motors fail. I feel sorry for poor Spirit having to drag her failed wheel all over the place.

  10. Glendon Raisbeck Says:
    January 11th, 2010 at 12:30 am

    I’m thinking outside the box here, with a couple of ideas for getting Spirit out of her predicament/bog/quicksand…
    1. Try folding the wheels, in and out just like after she landed. This would ‘lift’ them out of the sand and [hopefully] onto a fresh surface! …her belly could be used like a skid and you might get her to ‘crab’ sideways.
    2. At the same time, by using the robotic arm like an ‘oar’ and push down on the soil, causing the rover to heave up and out of the quicksand-trap.
    …what do you think?

    Glendon Raisbeck
    Cedar Creek, via Samford,
    Queensland, Australia.

    JPL Media Relations responds:

    Thank you for your suggestions. The unfolding after landing was a one-time process that cannot be undone or repeated. The engineers have analyzed several possible uses of the robotic arm. It actually has very little strength and could not lift, push or pull the rover enough to benefit.

    February 21st, 2010 at 7:13 am

    Thanks nasa for ur wonderful acheivements especially the mars rover which is successful since the inception of pathfinder over the last few decades .The shrad radar in MRO is successful in finding water channels in mars .And the reflection of the geological activity that has been noted down is a remarkable work of the rover .The findings of sulfate compounds and the presence of life supporting minerals has made the fellow people to dream off that one day we would be enjoying the red planet and would be able to colonize the first ever planet of universe.However the robotics arm that was responsible for digging out martian soil was having some alingment problem as it was having a problem in load balencing problems as it got struck and however a idea from me is that a mere inclusion of vacum cleaner and a small fan would be a good idea as it would more effectively remove the dust particles in a precise way .However the efforts done by the jpl engineers is incredible as it implicates that humanity is leaping towards a modernized and automated future.
    Thanks you
    Goutam Tarafder

Leave a Reply

Please keep comments on the topic of the post, and avoid using links to external sites. Selected comments will be chosen for posting.