Mars rover photographs featured at Smithsonian

BRETT ZONGKER, Associated Press
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This image provided by NASA shows loose, BB-sized, hematite-rich spherules embedded in this Martian rock like blueberries in a muffin and released over time by erosion. The Mars Rover Opportunity found this cluster of them at its Eagle Crater landing site and analyzed their composition with its spectrometers. Hypotheses about their formation have contributed to the story of water on Mars. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University)

This image provided by NASA shows loose, BB-sized, hematite-rich spherules embedded in this Martian rock like blueberries in a muffin and released over time by erosion. The Mars Rover Opportunity found this cluster of them at its Eagle Crater landing site and analyzed their composition with its spectrometers. Hypotheses about their formation have contributed to the story of water on Mars. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ten years after NASA landed two rovers on Mars for a 90-day mission, one is still exploring, and the project has generated hundreds of thousands of images from the planet’s surface.

Now the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is presenting more than 50 of the best photographs from the two rovers known as Spirit and Opportunity in an art exhibit curated by the scientists who have led the ongoing mission.

“Spirit and Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars” opens Thursday and includes many large-scale photographs of craters, hills, dunes, dust clouds, meteorites, rock formations and the Martian sunset. The Smithsonian’s first exhibit of art from the Martian rovers marks the 10th anniversary of the ongoing mission.

John Grant, a planetary geologist at the museum who is part of the rover mission team, organized the exhibit, in part as a travel log with images on one side from Sprit and images from Opportunity on the other. The rovers landed in January 2004 on opposite sides of Mars and began exploring volcanic deposits and plains, as well as meteorites and impact craters, so the exhibit also focuses on the science, Grant said.

“Every one of the images you see here tells a story of discovery that goes along with the story of beauty on Mars,” Grant said.

It’s a look at an alien planet through the rovers’ eyes, he said.

This image provided by NASA, shows rover tracks disappearing toward the horizon in a sea of sand between the craters Endurance and Victoria on the Meridiani Plains. Mars rover Opportunity took the image while stuck in the sand ripple dubbed Purgatory for over a month. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University)

This image provided by NASA, shows rover tracks disappearing toward the horizon in a sea of sand between the craters Endurance and Victoria on the Meridiani Plains. Mars rover Opportunity took the image while stuck in the sand ripple dubbed Purgatory for over a month. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University)

Uncovering signs of the past presence of water and a more habitable environment are among the rovers’ most important discoveries. Some were made by accident.

After about 800 days, one of Spirit’s front wheels stalled and stopped functioning. So the engineering team decided to continue driving it in reverse, dragging the broken wheel across the Martian surface. That dragging dug a trench behind the rover that soon uncovered a new material as white as snow. It turned out to be silica material that would normally be found in hot springs and hydrothermal systems — habitable environments.

“It was a total surprise,” said Steven Squyres, an astronomy professor at Cornell University who headed the Mars Exploration Rover mission. “It was just pure good luck. We wouldn’t have even seen that if we didn’t have the busted wheel.”

The rovers also found concretions and layered sedimentary rocks made of sulfate salt that showed water had once been on the planet’s surface.

While some panoramic images clearly show the red Martian landscape, other images focus on other colors that can be found in Mars’ rocks, soil and sky. One image of the Martian sunset shows a bluish color in the sky, which is usually pink in the daytime due to the reddish dust in the atmosphere. But it turns blue at sunset — the opposite of Earth, Squyres said.

This image provided by NASA shows a view by the Mars Rover Spirit of a sunset over the rim of Gusev Crater, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. Taken from Husband Hill, it looks much like a sunset on Earth, a reminder that other worlds can seem eerily familiar. Sunset and twilight images help scientists to determine how high into the atmosphere the Martian dust extends and to look for dust or ice clouds. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell University)

This image provided by NASA shows a view by the Mars Rover Spirit of a sunset over the rim of Gusev Crater, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. Taken from Husband Hill, it looks much like a sunset on Earth, a reminder that other worlds can seem eerily familiar. Sunset and twilight images help scientists to determine how high into the atmosphere the Martian dust extends and to look for dust or ice clouds. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell University)

Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said the rovers have made huge strides in learning about Mars to eventually send humans there. Another rover called Curiosity is also now exploring the surface, and NASA plans to send more rovers before humans.

“In human exploration, it’s not like ‘Star Trek.’ It’s not go where no man has gone before,” he said. “Actually, the scientists have to lead that. We have to know everything about the environment before we send humans onto that next journey.”

This image provided by NASA shows the piece of metal with the American flag on it is made of aluminum recovered from the site of the World Trade Center towers in New York City on Mars Rover Spirit that serves as a cable guard for Spirit’s rock abrasion tool as well as a memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Mars Rover Opportunity has an identical piece.  (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University)

This image provided by NASA shows the piece of metal with the American flag on it is made of aluminum recovered from the site of the World Trade Center towers in New York City on Mars Rover Spirit that serves as a cable guard for Spirit’s rock abrasion tool as well as a memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Mars Rover Opportunity has an identical piece. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University)

National Air and Space Museum: http://airandspace.si.edu/

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