Stirling scientist celebrates NASA’s Mars marathon
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has completed a marathon on Mars - and a University of Stirling scientist is sharing in the celebrations.
Dr Christian Schröder is the only Scottish-based scientist involved in the Mars Exploration Rover Mission to explore the surface of the red planet.
NASA's two Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, landed on the red planet in early 2004, aiming to explore two sites where water may once have been present, and to assess past environmental conditions at the sites and their suitability for life.
It took roughly 11 years and two months for Opportunity to drive 26.221 miles on Mars, surpassing the milestone Olympic marathon distance of 26.219 miles, far beyond the distance it was originally expected to cover.
Dr Schröder, a member of the Mars Exploration Rover Science and Operations Team, said: "The rovers were designed to last 90 days and drive approximately 600 metres across the Martian surface.
"More than 11 years later, being involved in operating a vehicle on another planet has become part of my life. Reaching such a milestone makes you stop, take a deep breath and really appreciate how extraordinary and privileged this experience actually is."
Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: "This is the first time any human enterprise has exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of another world. A first time happens only once."
Dr Schröder has been involved in the mission since 2001 in both engineering and science capacities, helping develop and operate two instruments for the rovers (the miniaturized Mössbauer spectrometer MIMOS II and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer), which are used to analyse the mineralogy and chemistry of the Martian surface.
Acting as Payload Uplink Lead and Payload Downlink Lead for these instruments on the operations team, he participates in setting new tasks and destinations for Opportunity.
Among the discoveries Dr Schröder contributed to are morphological and mineralogical historical evidence of water flowing on the Martian surface, considered to be an interplanetary ‘hole-in-one’ as this was found in the wall of the small impact crater in which the rover had landed.
Although these waters were acidic, they provided a potentially habitable environment and the discoveries were hailed as ‘scientific breakthrough of the year’ by the journal Science in 2004.
Later, at Endeavour Crater’s rim, gypsum and other minerals indicated the presence of liquid water in the past, this time at the neutral conditions common to our own surroundings on Earth, providing further evidence that Mars was at one time hospitable to life.
Steve Squyres, Opportunity principal investigator at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York said: "This mission isn't about setting distance records, of course; it's about making scientific discoveries on Mars and inspiring future explorers to achieve even more. Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool."
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- Background information
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity surpassed a marathon length of Martian driving on 24 March 2015.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. For more information about Spirit and Opportunity, visit: www.nasa.gov/rovers and http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov.
Dr Schröder has shared in six NASA Group Achievement Awards for the Mars Exploration Rovers, the most recent in late 2014 to recognise 'ten years of sustained exploration and scientific discovery on the surface of Mars with the Mars Exploration Rovers'.