Monday, December 24, 2012

The Might Mars Rovers by Elizabeth Rusch

More than eight years before the Curiosity rover landed in Gale Crater, two rovers named Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of Mars. While previous NASA missions to Mars, such as the Viking landers, had carried scientific instruments, their capabilities were limited. To Steve Squyres, then a college student, it was obvious that the Viking landers were not the ideal way of studying the geology of Mars. True, valuable pictures and information had been collected, but so much more could be discovered—if only it could move around the planet and crush rocks or dig things up.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising to learn that Squyres had arrived at college considering a major in geology. An astronomy course taught by a member of the Viking science team inspired Squyres to study planetary science instead, with the dream of exploring Mars. Sending an actual person to Mars seemed impossible, but what about a robot, "a rolling geologist, with the hammers and drills and tools of a human geologist"?
His idea was a tough sell. "Rovers are risky. They are expensive and difficult to do," he admitted. "And people kept asking, Why do you need a rover when all the rocks on Mars look alike? But all you had to do was look at pictures from orbit and it was obvious that Mars is an incredibly scenic, diverse, and complicated planet."

For eight years, Steve wrote proposals to NASA for a Mars rover.

For eight years, NASA refused to fund the proposals. (p. 12)
Then, in 2000, Squyres received a call from NASA. They weren't interested in one rover. They wanted two. Oh, and he only had three years to build the rovers (and rockets and landers) instead of the typical five. Squyres, leading a team of 170 scientists, and Pete Theisinger of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, leading hundreds of engineers, rose to the challenge. Spirit and Opportunity became the centerpieces of Mars Exploration Rover Mission, with the primary goal of "search[ing] for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars."

The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity by Elizabeth Rusch is part of the the outstanding Scientists in the Field series. Although Squyres is the scientist whom Rusch focuses on, she also emphasizes the teamwork that was essential to overcoming challenges, from the technical difficulties of building the rovers to troubleshooting obstacles on Mars. Rusch keeps readers engaged throughout the book, even in the more technical sections, and especially towards the end, when the rovers have long exceeded their expected three-month life span, and the team must maneuver the rovers in tricky situations during the harsh Martian winter.

The book's design is effective and inviting, with sidebars that take readers behind the scenes (like brief explanations of how to drive a rover) and captioned full-color images on every page. Back matter includes a source list, chapter notes, a "For Further Exploration" section, glossary, and index.

Readers looking for information about Curiosity should be aware that it is only briefly mentioned at the end of the book (which was written prior to Curiosity landing on Mars), but they—along with many others—will still find much to fascinate, inform, and inspire them in these pages.

Published 2012 by Houghton Mifflin (ISBN 9780547478814).

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs.

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