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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.