The Luncheon Society—Los Angeles/NASA Mars Rover Project Manager John Callas on 15 years on the Red Planet. What did we find? / Napa Valley Grille/May 31, 2019

Mars Rover

The Luncheon Society had a fantastic gathering in Los Angeles with our friend John Callas who served as The Project Manager for the Mars Rover Program, both Spirit and Opportunity. Both rovers landed in 2004 and were only supposed to last for 90 SOLs (Martian days) or roughly 92 Earth days. However, Spirit lasted on the Martian surface nearly 7 years until 2010 when the rover became irrevocably stuck in soft sand (the equivalent to Martian quicksand) but Opportunity stayed on the job for nearly 15 years and got into trouble during a major planetwide sandstorm that put “Oppy” into a deep freeze since it was power by solar panels. After countless attempt to rouse the remaining rover proved fruitless, the mission ended only a few short months ago.

John-Callas 2Now NASA/JPL’s Rover Curiosity is wandering the Martian surface alone, but not for long. The Mars 2020 rover will be launched soon and the cool thing about that next rover is that it will come with a drone helicopter that will allows it to wander around the surface of the planet and go off into great distances beyond the original landing site. Mars is extraordinarily difficult to land on-far more so than the moon because the distance involved and the minuscule atmosphere, which is roughly 1% of what is found on earth.

Before Spirit and Opportunity landed in early 2004 not much was known about Mars because NASA’s Viking landers of the 1970’s could not find anything that might equate to life –as we knew it back then. However, planetary scientists kept looking at the northern regions of the planet and noticed how smooth the surface appeared—a hint that there might have been ancient oceans billions of years ago.

What a Wild Ride

Both Spirit and Opportunity rewrote our knowledge about Mars and found surface features that could only be made by a very large watery presence. Mars, which is about half the size of earth had roughly the same percentage of water. Because Mars lacks the strong magnetic field found on the Earth, the Solar Winds stripped away the Martian atmosphere (we see the solar wind as the “Northern Lights”–as they bump into our magnetic field). As the atmosphere disappeared, so did the ancient Martin oceans.

Both Spirit and Opportunity made these astounding discoveries because they had time to roam around the Martian surface—for years in fact. In certain respects, Man has walked on Mars—if only by remote control.

To put things in context, the astronauts of Apollo 11 only remained on the surface for a short amount of time—Neil Armstrong for 2 hours 47 minutes and Buzz Aldrin just under 2 hours on the Sea of Tranquility. The lifespan for Spirit and Opportunity registered in at a combined 22 earth years on the surface. NASA funded the program on bare bones for years after they thought that both rovers would become yet another dead piece of metal in the service of exploration.

The Life of a Rover

Even as the rovers aged, they provided new discoveries, almost by accident.  When one of the wheels of Spirit froze up, the rover drove backwards for the remainder of its life.  However, as it moved backwards as the stuck wheel dragged along the Martian surface, it dug up new secrets of the composition of the Martian soil.

Beyond NASA’s Viking probes, Sojourner (the smallest) went cold in 1997 (but made a cameo performance in the movie “The Martian,”) there were two golf cart sized Martian Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) that spent a great deal of time roaming the surface, and Curiosity powered down on the surface by Skyhook in 2012. Mars 2020 (not pictured) will launch soon. There have been some other “simple landers” (NASA’s Phoenix) but now every space probe will want to wander around and check out the local neighborhood. Spirit traveled roughly 5 miles, but Opportunity stretched things out to over 28 miles, longer than a marathon here on Earth.

The bittersweet farewell from John Callas to Mars Rover Opportunity 

However, does this mean that Mars is barren of life? Who knows what exists below the surface? Microbial life might be protected under foot that would not be able to thrive on the surface.

One last cool thing. On each and every day that both Mars rovers were wandering around the surface, each rover would send a text to the cell phone used by John Callas to show its progress from the past day. That is way cool.

Great day. More to come

luncheon-logo-fc7-1The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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