NASA’s Mars Rovers to Hit the Silver Screen
Mars is home to two intrepid NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, featured in the IMAX documentary 'Roving Mars.'
Credit: Disney/Maas Digital.

NASA's hardy twin robots Spirit and Opportunity currently roving across the surface of Mars will be immortalized in a fresh documentary about their wildly successful mission.

Disney's new IMAX film Roving Mars, set to open nationwide on Jan. 27, chronicles the exploits of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission that entered its third year exploring the surface of the red planet this month. Originally slated for a 90-Martian day mission, Spirit and Opportunity have consistently surpassed the expectations of their handlers and filmmakers throughout their mission.

"My original idea was to wait for the rovers to die and that it would be a dramatic ending," Roving Mars director George Butler told "However, these rovers won't die, which is excellent news."

On Mars, Spirit is slowly making its way toward a rock target dubbed "Home Plate" at its Gusev Crater landing site. Its robotic twin Opportunity, meanwhile, is exploring a crater named Erebus on the plains of Meridiani Planum. While the stars of Roving Mars are the rovers themselves, the film includes comments rover scientists such as Steve Squyres, the mission's leader at Cornell University.

"During the landings, particularly, you really relive it," Squyres told of the film. "The tension and the drama, it is all there."

With a mission that has lasted beyond all predictions, Squyres said he and his science team are worn but holding together. The recent addition of several new science team members has eased the extended mission's strain, allowing mission managers to focus on Spirit's trip toward a rock target dubbed 'Home Plate' while Opportunity prepares for its first drive in weeks, he added.

"The biggest challenge was being patient while things were going on on Mars," Butler said. "When you make a documentary like this, you never know what's going to happen. I think it's an epic story."

Butler, whose bodybuilding film Pumping Iron made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name, said the rovers' abilities - specifically their high-resolution panoramic cameras - were the lynchpin that made the 100-minute Roving Mars ?possible.

"That, to me, was the determining factor," Butler said. "Honestly, I was not really interested until I heard these rovers were equipped with IMAX quality cameras. Then I thought, 'Wow, if I could put Mars on an IMAX screen that would be great.'"

For Squyres, Roving Mars is a vindication of sorts for the engineers behind the panoramic cameras, or PanCams, aboard Spirit and Mars.

"We've been saying for years that the PanCam images were good enough to look good on an IMAX screen and by God they do," Squyres said, adding that he and his team have not been able to view rover imagery at its full potential until now. "A computer screen falls woefully short. It's like looking through a soda straw."

Butler's team relied on actual data and images beamed back to Earth from Spirit and Opportunity, as well as the computer imagery talents of Ithaca, New York-based Maas Digital, which created original animations for NASA to illustrate the rover mission.

"The major difference is that when we did the earlier animation, it was before the rovers had landed on Mars," said the Dan Maas, of Maas Digital, in a telephone interview. "Whereas with this film...we have much more of a historical recreation of exactly what the rovers saw."

Depictions of the rover landings, during which they plunged through the Martian atmosphere, deployed parachutes then bounced along the red planet's surface with airbags, are based on data from gyroscopes and accelerometers embedded in the landing craft, Squyres said.

Filmmakers also overlaid digital elevation models recorded by Spirit and Opportunity with rover imagery to generate accurate landscapes for their computer-generated counterparts to explore, travels that again are based on mission telemetry, he added.

Piecing together rover images into a seamless vista for the IMAX screen sometimes took weeks at a time, Maas said, adding that while the film is aimed at adults and children alike, devoted rover fans will find gems like 'Adirondack,' 'Sushi' and 'Sashimi' - the first rock targets approached by the rovers -and others peppered in the show.

"I think that Mars is the most accessible planet beyond Earth," Maas said, explaining that the red world has a special place in the hearts of young and old alike. "It's one of the handful of places in the Solar System where we have the chance of finding traces of current or past life. I think it's a foregone conclusion that the next world for humans will be Mars."