Exploring with Spirit's Robotic Eyes and Arms
NASA's successful Mars Rover landing is just the beginning for this high-tech golf cart. An extraordinary mission continues
as Spirit is driven off of its "bed" of lander petals onto the Martian surface.
But what makes Spirit the "darling" of the Solar System is its on-board instrumentation: the eyes, heart and arms of the vehicle.
At left is an artist's rendering of Spirit ready to embark on its Mars jouney of discovery.
Spirit eyes the planet's surface with its Panoramic Camera
(Pancam) that sits atop a five foot mast
. As its "head" rotates, directed by the Earth-bound science team, it views the landscape with its high resolution cameras. The terrain imaged by Pancam, along with its partner - the Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer
(Mini-TES) helps scientists decide what rocks and soils to analyze. Mini-TES is located at the bottom of the rover's mast and scanning mirrors reflect the images down to it.
Mars is a dusty planet and Mini-TES is able to detect infrared radiation emitted by objects through the dust and grime. With its remote sensing ability, Mini-TES can investigate specific rocks and patches of soil in detail, from a distance. It also can detect organic molecules and minerals and surface properties that would benefit investigation with other instruments.
Scientists also need a way to produce extreme close-up views of rocks and soil. On board Spirit is the Microscopic Imager
, a combination microscope and camera. Its close-up imaging can supply information on volcanic and impact activity in rocks, as well as "see" tiny veins of minerals.
Because of the dust coating and weathered crust of the rocks, a device called the Rock Abrasion Tool
(RAT) gets to the "heart" of the matter. Located on Spirit's instrument "arm
", the RAT is positioned against a rock and the grinding wheel removes a layer of grit and crust. This reveals a two-inch diameter area of unexposed material for testing.
Finding iron minerals can give scientists information about Mars' early environmental conditions. The Alpha-Particle-X-Ray Spectrometer
(APXS) uses alpha particles and X-rays to determine the elemental chemistry of rocks and soil. APXS has the ability to touch and analyze the chosen patch of surface material, providing scientists with information on the weathering process and possible water activity on the planet to sustain life.
At right is a panoramic image taken of the Martian landscape by Spirit's Pancam.
Along with its high-tech instruments, Spirit carries a device that is surprisingly simple: a sundial
. Sundials have been used on Earth for hundreds of years as timekeepers and as works of art.
The Spirit sundial was carefully designed by a science team and ideas from students in schools across the United States. An inscription tells why we made the journey to Mars and the rings around the center post symbolize the orbits of Earth and Mars. The word Mars is inscribed in 17 different languages and includes drawings submitted by the students.
In addition to the historic feature of the sundial, it will aid scientists to calibrate colors and images of the Martian landscape from the panoramic camera. Pancam records the passage of hours, seasons and shadows as the sun moves across the Martian sky. The sundial gives scientists the ability to adjust the color and brightness of each picture, bringing us "true color" images of the red planet.
This historic landing in Gusev crater shows NASA's determination technical ability, and teamwork. The ground on which Spirit's lander sits within the crater has been named the Columbia Memorial Station, in honor of the last crew of Space Shuttle Columbia. We're reminded of the fragile nature of being human, coupled with the extraordinary dreams of space exploration, as we continue to "push the envelope" of discovery.
For further information, visit:
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory