3 Generations of NASA’s Mars Rovers

by Ken Kremer on January 22, 2012

Three Generations of NASA's Mars Rovers in the Mars Yard
This grouping shows 3 generations of NASA’s Mars rovers from 1997 to 2012 set inside the Mars Yard at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. The Mars Pathfinder Project (front) landed the first Mars rover - Sojourner - in 1997. The Mars Exploration Rover Project (left) landed Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2004. The Mars Science Laboratory Project (right) is on course to land Curiosity on Mars in August 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA Mars rovers have come a long way in terms of size and capability since the rebirth of Red Planet surface exploration just 15 years ago – spanning from 1997 to 2012.

To get a really excellent sense of just how far America’s scientists and engineers have pushed the state of the art in such a short time – when the willpower and funding existed and coincided to explore another world – take a good look at the new pictures here showing 3 generations of NASA’s Mars rovers; namely Mars Pathfinder (MPF), the 1st generation Mars rover, Mars Exploration Rover (MER), the 2nd generation, and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the 3rd and newest generation Mars rover.

The newly released pictures graphically display a side by side comparison of the flight spare for Mars Pathfinder (1997 landing) and full scale test rovers of the Mars Exploration Rover (2004 landing) and Mars Science Laboratory (in transit for a 2012 planned landing). The setting is inside the “Mars Yard” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. where the teams conduct mission simulations.

It’s been nothing less than a quantum leap in advancement of the scientific and technological capability from one generation to the next.

Sojourner - NASA’s 1st Mars Rover
Sojourner takes an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of Yogi rock after Red Planet landing on July 4, 1997 landing. Sojourner was only 2 feet long, the size of a microwave oven.
Credit: NASA

Just consider the big increase in size – growing from a microwave oven to a car !

The “Marie Curie” flight spare and the actual “Sojourner” rover on Mars are 2 feet (65 centimeters) long – about the size of a microwave oven. The MER rovers “Spirit and Opportunity” and the “Surface System Test Bed” rover are 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) long – about the size of a golf cart. The MSL “Curiosity” and the “Vehicle System Test Bed” rover are 10 feet (3 meters) long – about the size of a car.

Side view of Three Generations of Mars Rovers
Front; flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. Left; Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover. Right; Mars Science Laboratory test rover Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With your own eyes you can see the rapid and huge generational change in Mars rovers if you have the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and stroll by the Mars exhibit with full scale models of all three of NASA’s Red Planet rovers.

At the KSC Visitor Complex in Florida you can get within touching distance of the Martian Family of Rovers and the generational differences in size and complexity becomes personally obvious and impressive.

NASA’s Family of Mars rovers at the Kennedy Space Center
Full scale models on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Curiosity and Spirit/Opportunity are pictured here. Sojourner out of view. Credit: Ken Kremer

All of the Mars rovers blasted off from launch pads on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity launched atop Delta II rockets at Space Launch Complex 17 in 1996 and 2003. Curiosity launched atop an Atlas V at Space Launch Complex 41 in 2011.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers with Standing Mars Engineers
The rovers are pictured here with real Mars Engineers to get a sense of size and perspective. Front rover is the flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. At left is a Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover, working sibling to Spirit and Opportunity. At right is a Mars Science Laboratory test rover the size of Curiosity which is targeting a August 2012 Mars landing. The Mars engineers are JPL's Matt Robinson, left, and Wesley Kuykendall. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity is still exploring Mars to this day – 8 years after landing on the Red Planet, with a warranty of merely 90 Martian days.

Curiosity is scheduled to touch down inside Gale crater on 6 August 2012.

So, what comes next ? Will there be a 4th Generation Mars rover ?

Stay tuned – only time and budgets will tell.

About 

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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