WHERE ARE THE ROVERS ON MARS?

Mars, that wandering red dot in the infinite sky, was first described by ancient Egyptians. Then the Babylonians, the Shang Chinese, the Mesopotamians, the Greeks… until it was given its current name by the Romans: Mars, their god of war. Since then, hundreds of years have passed. Telescopes, orbiters, landers and lately, rovers have paved to way to a better understanding of the planet. The latter, rovers, are currently exploring the surface, but where are those rovers, and what do they do?


Rovers on Mars

Mars 2, Mars 3 and the PrOP-M rovers


Launched in 1971, the USSR missions Mars 2 and Mars 3 carried similar rovers: the PrOP-M rovers. Tiny, with a weight of 4.5 kg, they were meant to stroll the Red Planet surface on skis. Mars 2 crashed. Mars 3 landed. Unfortunately, the connection with Mars 3 was lost after less than a minute. It is unknown whether the rover was deployed or not. To find out: Rendez-Vous in Ptolemaeus Crater, south to Newton Crater, somewhere in Phaethontis quadrangle.


First rover on Mars
PrOP-M rover, 1971, first rover to Mars

Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner rover


The next rover comes much later. In 1997, Sojourner landed in the Ares Vallis channel in the Chryse Planitia. The 11.5 kg vehicle drove 100 metres during its 3-month long mission. It managed to take 550 photos and analyse the composition of 16 rocks. More importantly, as a demonstrator, it opened the door to more ambitious Martian land explorations for NASA. Sojourner is also a Hollywood movie star. In The Martian, the rover is featured when Mark Watney, alias Matt Damon, reaches the lander Pathfinder, which he wants to use to send a message to Earth.


Rover on Mars
Sojourner Rover, bottom left: super star in The Martian

Mars Exploration Rovers: Spirit & Opportunity


In 2003 NASA launched two rover missions to Mars. The 185 kg Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed in two different locations in early 2004. Both rovers far outlived their three months planned missions: Spirit was active until March 2010 and travelled 7 km in Gusev crater. Opportunity was active until June 2018 and travelled 45 km in Meridiani Planum, East of Miyamoto crater. One crucial outcome of these missions was the confirmation that, long ago, there were large quantities of liquid water on Mars and an atmosphere as dense as Earth’s.


A tornado on Mars
Spirit witnesses a tornado on Mars

Opportunity’s journey on Mars
Opportunity’s journey on Mars

Perseverance, the latest NASA rover


In early 2021, Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater’s delta in Syrtis Major quadrangle. With a weight of over a ton, the rover is still not a Caripen GPRV but has the size of a small car. However, its goals are no less than to seek out evidence of past life and to prepare for future crewed missions to Mars. In that respect, it has already managed to produce oxygen directly from the Martian atmosphere. And many more things! For instance, Perseverance recorded the first-ever sounds from another planet. Doing so, scientists found out that, contrary to Earth, low-pitched sounds travel slower than higher-pitched sounds on Mars. These findings have been inspirational to the composers of the Mars4 official music tracks!


Perseverance’s tools
Perseverance’s tools

Tianwen-1 and Zhurong rover


China has its first rover on Mars. Zhurong landed in Utopia Planitia in Spring 2021. The landing site is somewhere in the middle of the bed of the ancient northern ocean. There, the Chinese National Spatial Agency (CNSA) plans to study the topography and geology; examine the soil, particularly in search of ice.


Tianwen-1 lander and Zhurong rover on Mars
Tianwen-1 lander (top) and Zhurong rover (bottom) in Utopia Planitia photographed and tracked by HiRISE camera.

Rosalind Franklin, ESA’s rover


Europe also has its eyes on Mars. A future mission will land a rover near to former Oxia Planum’s delta, which used to flow into the nowadays dry Northern Ocean. Its exploration main goal is no less than to look for signs of past life.


Study Map Oxia Planum – ESA
Study Map Oxia Planum – ESA

The rovers on Mars:


Rovers on Mars planet

Interesting links:


PrOP-M rovers on Wikipedia


Sojourner with NASA


Spirit & Opportunity with NASA


Perseverance with NASA


Zhurong with CNSA


Rosalind Franklin with ESA

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