Mars Trek: TV Show Dramatizes Five Years of Red Planet Roving
An artist's depiction of a Mars rover: 'They are the closest I think that you can come to what it would be like standing there,' says MER principal investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University.
Credit: National Geographic

Mars, the red planet, these are the journeys of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, their five year missions to explore strange new surfaces, to seek out new water evidence and new signs of life, to boldly roll where no rovers have gone before...

The trek of NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers across the fourth planet from the Sun is the focus of "Five Years on Mars," a new one-hour special airing on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday. The show, which uses photo-realistic animation based on the rovers' own photos to dramatize their trials and tribulations, features several of the twins' drivers, as well as their principal investigator Steven Squyres.

"Astonishingly accurate," Squyres said of the program's recreations of the Martian surface. "The guy who did that was a guy named Dan Maas, who I've known 10 years now and has been working on this stuff forever. He is just a real stickler for detail, so both depictions of the Martian terrain and depictions of the rovers are as accurate as I think anyone can possibly make them."

"They are the closest I think that you can come to what it would be like standing there, looking at it on the Martian surface," continued Squyres. "Dan's animations as they were produced for ["Five Years on Mars"] are just lovingly created over months and months of work and we don't have that luxury, so what we use to operate the rovers is not nearly as good as what you see in the show."

Exploring opposite sides of Mars since January 2004, the two golf cart-size rovers' adventures unfold during "Five Years" in soap opera fashion, as the focus is alternated between the "lucky" Opportunity and the not-so-fortunate Spirit.

"That was certainly the way it was at first," Squyres told in an interview, "Opportunity was definitely the lucky one, with all the sexy evidence of water and everything laid out right in front, literally seven meters in front of the rover when we landed."

As the program shows, Opportunity's landing in a shallow crater in Meridiani Planum gave Squyres and his team a first look at a rock outcropping on Mars, which in turn led to the discovery of "blueberries," small hematite spheres that provided the direct evidence of past water. From that point forward, Opportunity's luck just grew. From the wind gusts that cleaned its solar panels to its mostly smooth transit across the Martian dunes (less a particularly trying sand trap), Opportunity's eight miles on Mars have proved its name to be appropriate.

If Opportunity was taking full advantage of its opportunity for discovery, Spirit's landing left Squyres' spirit decidedly down.

"Spirit got lucky too, but much later," he admitted. In the show, Squyres goes on to say that while he was reluctant to say it at the time, Spirit's landing site was a "crushing disappointment".

Touching down two weeks before its twin, Spirit landed in Gusev crater, which was believed to be the site of a past lake. Instead of finding evidence of water however, Spirit found only volcanic rock. Making the best of the situation Squyres directed the rover team to drive to the nearby but yet more distant than anyone had planned Columbia Hills. Spirit, as Squyres acknowledged, ultimately did get lucky but only after losing use of one of its wheels, which led to it scraping away the Martian soil to discover silica, a clue towards the existence of microbial life.

Whether faced with good or bad luck, the rovers' teams at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory became attached to 'their' rover, rooting for its success, though not Squyres.

"I am deeply attached to both of these things. They have both done magnificently. It's like I have kids and it's like asking which of my two kids I love better," he said. "They are different, but I love them both."

Click through to to continue reading why no one expected the rovers to last five years and view a video preview of "Five Years on Mars".

"Five Years on Mars" debuts on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

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