Mars Rover (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

I went to a very interesting lecture last night presented by Leo Enright, the Irish broadcaster and science journalist. He talked to us about the two NASA robot probes, Spirit and Opportunity, that are currently making their way across Mars. Spirit is currently holed up in the Columbia Hills in Gusev Crater, while Opportunity has come up to the edge of the impressive Victoria Crater on the Meridiani Planum.

They both landed there in January 2004, and were originally expected to work for around 3 months. Nearly 3 years later, they are still operational, sending back pictures almost every day. Spirit celebrates its 1,000’th “sol” on Mars today. To celebrate the occasion, a panoramic 360 degree view of the Columbia Hills has been released on the internet.

McMurdo panorama from Spirit Rover (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

The view from the Victoria Crater is, if anything, even more stunning. The crater is about a kilometre wide, and in a few week’s time Opportunity will descend into it. (How it gets itself out is another question entirely).

Opportunity on rim of Victoria Crater (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Leo demoed a free application known as “Midnight Mars” that downloads the latest photos from the rovers onto your PC each night. Because the rover cameras are about the same height as an adult human, you get the distinct impression you are standing there yourself.

The probes have bolstered the case that Mars was once covered in water and they have provided an insight into the geology and stratigraphy of the planet. Looking at the photographs from Mars, I got the distinct feeling that we know very little about the place. There is a treasure trove of information waiting to be discovered by future robot probes, and maybe some time in the distant future, people themselves.

Update: My question about how Opportunity gets out of Victoria Crater has been answered: it doesn’t. It’s fate is being decided as we speak.