"Spirit" and "Opportunity"
Mars rovers extend their long journey
NASA's artist rendition of one of the rovers on Mars.
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(CNN) -- By the time Spirit and Opportunity made Time's "What's Next" list in 2003, the pair were already millions of miles into their journey to Mars. Earth's grounded citizens already had been dazzled by the journey of Sojourner, a much smaller rover that ventured to Mars in 1997. But Sojourner was a test run for its larger siblings. Spirit and Opportunity were well equipped to bring back a plethora of scientific information about the planet that once inspired popular visions of little green people.
Since the rovers' landings on Mars just three weeks apart in 2004, they have made great progress in sampling the planet's rocks and soil and have transmitted large amounts of data back to eager scientists. The rovers' success also includes outlasting their expected three-month lifetime (the engineers purposefully underestimated their longevity to ensure minimum goals were met).
Their main mission was to discover if there is or had ever been water on Mars. Landing coordinates for the rovers were picked to maximize the potential for scientific discovery while minimizing obstacles in the paths of the slow-moving (about 0.1 miles an hour, or about 2 inches a second) rovers.
On March 3, 2004 scientists declared that there had been liquid water on Mars. The physical appearance and the existence of sulfates in the rocks tested by the rovers' instruments indicated that they were once exposed to water.
Once Spirit and Opportunity found evidence of water on Mars, they were kept on the planet to collect more data. Even though they were functioning long past their expected lifespan, the rovers received NASA's blessing in April 2005 to continue their mission in the form of an additional 18 months of funding.
Since then, the rovers have climbed hills to expose spectacular views and captured images of dust devils moving across the powdery Martian landscape. As the data continues to come in, the possibilities continue to grow. No one knows how long the rovers can hold out, so each day they power up is another scientific record.
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