To cap off World Space Week, today we have a guest post from Dr Paulo de Souza, OCE Science Leader at CSIRO Computational Informatics, and a Participating Scientist of the Mars Exploration Rover Project since 2002.

In just three months from now, if all continues to go well, we will be able celebrate the decade-long continuous operation of NASA’s rover Opportunity on Mars. Originally built to last just three months, Opportunity is now far beyond its warranty, and still exploring the cold surface of the red planet.

Right now, as we celebrate World Space Week, and its theme or ‘Exploring Mars, Discovering Earth’, we consider Mars as a place so similar to our own, but at the same time, totally alien. It calls to us like few other places as the next frontier for human exploration.

However, before we dare step on its reddish‐dusty surface, we need to future‐proof our astronauts, combating the problems they would deal with on the expedition, including:
•    almost one year of interplanetary trip to Mars (and then back again!);
•    The weak gravity (38% of our terrestrial gravity) would degenerate muscles and bones;
•    Massive dust storms with winds up to 400km/h;
•    Extreme temperature variations (from –100ºC to +10ºC every day);
•    Coping with a longer day (named Sol on Mars) of 24h 40min;

Not to mention communication challenges – there is, on average, a 20 minute delay caused by the time it takes for information to travel (at the speed of light) between Mars and the Earth. (Who could forget the ‘seven minutes of terror’ during the landing of the Mars Space Laboratory in August last year?)

By the way, did you know that one-third of all data coming from the rovers on Mars are captured by dishes at our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex? The Complex also handled the vital communication link to both Spirit and Opportunity for their 2004 landings, as well as Curiosity’s historic touchdown last year.

Below you will see two amazing galleries of photos which, for me, are some of the highlights of the Spirit and Opportunity missions so far.

(Please click on the photos for detailed captions)

Spirit landed at Gusev Crater on Mars on 2 January 2004. Opportunity (below), her twin sister, landed at Meridiani Planum (the other side of Mars) three weeks after.

Spirit and Opportunity have completely changed our understanding of the red planet.

They have shown scientists clear evidence of past watery environments on Mars that may have been suitable habitats for life. They have trekked across a surface that has shown a wide diversity of terrain types, from hills and valleys, to broad sandy plains and vast, deep craters. They have survived massive dust storms and freezing temperatures, sand traps, cosmic ray strikes and the odd computer glitches.

Essentially they have faced many similar trials to those that may be experienced by future human explorers, and have come out the other side of these events and still kept roving.

Eventually, time and weary wheels will stop this amazing adventure (Spirit succumbed to the Martian winter in 2010), but for now Opportunity keeps on exploring. It is setting the bar for future explorers, both mechanical and perhaps one day, human.

It is an adventure that is worth noting at the close of World Space Week and that will be worth continuing following, hopefully, for years to come.

Check back on the CSIRO Universe blog for future updates, particularly as we celebrate the Mars rovers 10th anniversary in January 2014.

*Dr Paulo de Souza is an OCE Science Leader with CSIRO Computational Informatics (CCI). He is a collaborating scientist on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission, which landed and operates two large robots, Spirit and Opportunity, on the surface of Mars. Read more about our Sensors and Sensor Networks research.