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A Lucky Opportunity
by Michelle Mock

Opportunity's First Color Image!      Credit: NASA/JPL/MER"As the old saying goes, it's far better to be lucky than good.  But, you know, the harder we work, the luckier we seem to get."
~ Sean O'Keefe, NASA Administrator

It is extremely difficult to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars.  So many things can go wrong!  Difficulties to overcome begin prior to launch.  Assembling a spacecraft and transporting it across the country is an amazing feat in itself.  Once the spacecraft arrives at the launch facility, it must be carefully positioned atop a Delta II rocket which will send it off on a 7-month journey through the solar system.  During that journey, which seems almost routine from the perspective of the general public, engineers are constantly in contact with the little spacecraft, monitoring its health and progress.  Once the spacecraft arrives at Mars, it faces the greatest danger: landing safely.

The small spacecraft separates from its cruise stage, and then zooms down into the Martian atmosphere at supersonic speeds.  A parachute is deployed to slow its entry and then rockets are fired to further slow the descent.  Airbags are deployed and then the parachute strings are cut, using small pyrotechnic devices to trigger the cutting mechanisms.  Finally, the spacecraft, cocooned within its airbags, bounces on the planet until it comes to a full stop.  The airbags deflate and retract and the lander opens up like a flower.  Then the spacecraft opens its eyes (4 pairs of cameras) and looks around.  So many little things can go wrong, and so NASA remains cautiously optimistic, prepared for disaster and hoping for success.  The NASA administrator echoed the thoughts of many when he said, "No one dared hope that both rover landings would be so successful."

Two rovers were sent to Mars with the expectation of getting more science return for the dollar.  Two rovers were sent with the hope that if one "failed", the other would be successful.  Two rovers were sent to two very different places on Mars.  What will they find?  The adventure has just begun.

People within NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory often joke that JPL stands for "Just Plain Lucky".  The successful landing of TWO Mars Exploration Rovers certainly seems to confirm that.  However, it is much more than luck.  It is a determination to succeed in spite of all odds.  It is a testament to team work and the collaboration of scientists and engineers around the world.

Congratulations to the people who have the spirit and took the opportunity!  May your work inspire the next generation to never give up on their dreams.

For more information about the Mars Exploration Rovers, go to:

Be sure to read the Imagiverse interview with Mars scientist Dr. Phil Christensen!

Send your questions about Mars and the Mars Exploration Rovers to: Imagiverse - Ask The Expert

- 25 January 2004


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Last Updated:
25 January 2004

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