How have NASA's Mars robots lasted 24 times longer than expected (so far)?

With a life expectancy of three months, the Spirit and Opportunity robotic vehicles are still in service six years later

NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rovers are the Energizer Bunnies of outer space; both are still operational after six years, after only being expected to run for 90 days.

Even though the robotic vehicles have shown exceptional longevity in the field, their capabilities would be quickly outpaced by humans on Mars, Steve Squyres, principal investigator of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission, said at a seminar today sponsored by Federal Computer Week.

“I am a robots guy, but what the Mars Rovers have done in six years a human could do in a week,” Squyres said. When asked whether he would he volunteer for the job, Squyres answered, “In a heartbeat.”

According to Squyres, the Rovers owe their longevity to cautious testing and engineering while in development. “We used no new technologies, only proven technologies,” he said. “And we were very, very cautious in our parts selection, assembly and testing.”


Related stories:

NASA, Google provide 3-D views of Mars

NASA images reveal red planet


However, the Rovers’ software is a different story. Some of the programs for moving and operating the Rovers was developed during the five months while the vehicles were on the way to Mars, he said.

NASA also benefited from an unanticipated stroke of luck because winds have been regularly blowing dust and debris from the Rovers' solar panels, prolonging their usefulness, Squyres added.

NASA has spent more than $900 million on the missions of the Rovers. One of the most heralded discoveries so far is that Mars once had abundant water. However, no evidence has been found yet of biological life there, which most likely would have been microbes, Squyres said.

Currently, Opportunity is moving over sand dunes to the 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater. The Rovers already have explored a number of craters and rock formations, discovering pebble-like hematite and a deposit of pure silica.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Featured

  • Defense
    Ryan D. McCarthy being sworn in as Army Secretary Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Sgt. Dana Clarke/U.S. Army)

    Army wants to spend nearly $1B on cloud, data by 2025

    Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said lack of funding or a potential delay in the JEDI cloud bid "strikes to the heart of our concern."

  • Congress
    Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) at the Hack the Capitol conference Sept. 20, 2018

    Jim Langevin's view from the Hill

    As chairman of of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committe and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is one of the most influential voices on cybersecurity in Congress.

Stay Connected

FCW INSIDER

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.