A few months back I was wondering what the status of the Mars Rovers were. We hadn’t heard from them in a while….or rather the media was still being infatuated with its latest darling, Barack Obama. So I took a look around on the Internet to see what I could find. The answer was: surprisingly little!
Well of course, there was plenty from a historical perspective, but if you wanted to find out what the rovers were up to last week or what they’d be tasked doing next – it wasn’t at all easy to find out. NASA’s own Mars Rover website was fixated on educating school children about the project; so there wasn’t much in the way of “adult” content. That may have been due in part to the fact that when I’d started to look for info on the rovers, they were still operating in a kind of “grey mode” – placed in that state to protect them from the elements of the harsh Martian winter. Not much would be going on during this phase, since they’d just be sitting there save maybe for periodically uplinking to the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO) to say “we’re alive”. Even such abbreviated contact would be interrupted by a Mars-Sun-Earth alignment (where Earth and Mars are on exactly opposite sides of the sun) because no relay satellites yet exist to broker communications during such an event.
|Above are captures of Adobe Flash elements on the NASA Mars Rover site, which depict the environment immediately around each rover in real time.|
Things have improved considerably since. The most significant development was the release of Google Earth 5.0, which added geological survey data for the planet Mars to the other two operational modes; Earth and Sky (which serves as a low-end planetarium app for your PC). Of particular interest with the Mars feature was updated tracking of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered the data was a little more dated than Google let on. To Google’s credit, however, the service is supported by university students rather than dedicated staff responsible for updates.
So where do you go if you want information up to the current ‘Sol” (Martian day)? There are weekly digests one can review from the JPL website. Reading them independently without the context presented by Google Earth 5.0, I found them both dry and difficult to follow. But once famaliarized with the rover’s activity, it makes a lot more sense. Suddently terms like “Home Plate” and “Victoria Crater” mean something more than literally an abstract place name on a far away planet that people never visit. Plus when you look at some of the key sites using the panoramic view options, you can even examine some of the science being conducted for yourself.
It remains unclear exactly how realistic the Mars feature is within Google Earth 5.0. When in Earth mode, there’s an option to show the sunlit face of the world. This feature works in Mars mode too, but it’s not clear whether the software is converting between Mars & Earth time, and showing the sunlit surface of Mars per the current Earth time correctly. Even so – keeping occasionally informed about the Mars rovers while the media scarcely takes interest has become a lot easier.
UPDATE (2-Apr-2009): By comparing the "Time on Mars" graphic on the NASA Mars Rover site with the sunlit surface indicated on Mars using the Google Earth 5.0 application, it now appears that Google Earth accurately depicts the current sunlight surface of Mars at any given time.