The Spirit rover. Robotic geologists Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of the Red Planet in 2004. (NASA)

The Spirit rover. Robotic geologists Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of the Red Planet in 2004. (NASA)

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is still taking pictures after 14 years. (NASA)

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is still taking pictures after 14 years. (NASA)

Curiosity is the largest rover ever sent to Mars. It launched November 26, 2011. (NASA)

Curiosity is the largest rover ever sent to Mars. It launched November 26, 2011. (NASA)

The Phoenix rover landed on Mars on May 25, 2008. It worked until November 2. (NASA)

The Phoenix rover landed on Mars on May 25, 2008. It worked until November 2. (NASA)

Mission: Mars

Posted: September 1, 2020

Mars then.

People peered at Mars through telescopes. They noticed: The Red Planet is dusty and dry. But what are those indentations? Could they be . . . dried lakebeds?

Lakebeds mean water. Water could mean life. If Mars did once have water, did life exist there at one time? Could life even live there again?

To find out if Mars had water, scientists had to look for clues in rocks. But they didn’t have the technology to send a geologist (rock studier) to Mars. They could send poky, golf cart-sized vehicles though. These vehicles are called rovers.

The United States sent two rovers named Opportunity and Spirit to Mars in 2004. The machines hurtled down onto Mars. Big balloons softened their landing. The balloons deflated. Slowly, each rover emerged, opened its solar panels, and started powering up with sunlight. They looked something like hatching baby dinosaurs.

These rovers were supposed to work for around 90 sols. (A sol is a Mars day. It lasts 39 minutes longer than an Earth day.) But Opportunity worked for much longer. It trundled along until 2018! That’s a record!

The rovers were robotic geologists. Their cameras snapped photos. Their mechanical arms analyzed rocks and soil. They discovered evidence that water once flowed on Mars’s surface.

But NASA wasn’t done. Its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived on Mars in 2006. It mapped the planet, monitored the atmosphere, and checked for good spots for future spacecraft to land. NASA’s Phoenix lander tested Martian water for the first time in July 2008. The robot confirmed: Frozen water lurks under the frigid Martian ground.

In 2011, NASA sent its Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. Curiosity is about 10 feet long and nine feet wide. It holds 10 scientific instruments. It also has a drill and a stone-zapping laser. These sample Martian soil and rocks.

Mars future?

Have you ever imagined living on Mars? If so, you’re not alone. Scientists are planning a Mars city . . . seriously! But they must first conquer many challenges. Mars is coooold. It averages temperatures of 60 degrees below zero. How can people build habitats there? What resources will they use? What will they do with garbage they create?

Just getting to Mars is incredibly hard. How could astronauts possibly build a city there? One idea: Send robots first. Program them to build a home for people.