Good to see that the Americans got to Mars safely with Spirit. Will be great to see what it finds as it roams around. Let's hope that Opportunity lands safely as well.
The rover itself stands just over 5 ft tall to the top of its camera mast. Interesting that they've put an omni antenna on it that will get low data rate signals directly back to NASAs Deep Space Network, as well as a steerable antenna for more routine comms with the orbiters. If Beagle 2 had had those we maybe wouldn't be having so much trouble getting hold of it.
The landing site for MER Spirit is in the Gusev crater. Opportunity is going to Meridiani. The landing site for Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars was near the Viking/Pathfinder sites. Beagle 2 has hopefully landed in Isidis Planitia, which was also a prime MER. Isidis Planitia is the crater that looks like an inlet half-way and just north between the two MER landing sites. There's a good map at a cracking space reference site called Windows to the Universe.
NASA has an excellent press kit giving all the key data on the MER mission.
Interesting that it'll be a week or so before the rover rolls off the lander. Then they expect to cover about 20m a day for up to 92 earth days (or 90 martian Sols). That's only 2km. The rover is solar powered so only runs during daylight - let's hope there are no dust storms. Operators also have to contend with the 10 minute plus one-way lag, 20 minutes round trip, in communications.
The press kit also describes the 3 Ages of Mars currently accepted by Areologists.
- Noachian - 4.6 bn to 3.6 bn - warm, wet, volcanic
- Hesperian - 3.6 bn to 3 bn or 2 bn - ice and floods
- Amazonian - 2 bn or 3 bn to present - dry and dessicating
It also describes the current missions as "following the water", and the missions of the next decade as being about the "search for the building blocks of life". The missions slated for the rest of the decade are:
- 2005 - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter - hi res 1m photos
- 2007 - Phoenix Mars Scout - north polar lander and soil analysis
- 2009 - Mars Science Larboratory - large rover with nuclear power, a range measured in tens of kilometres and 2 yr life
- 2009 - Mars Telecommunications Orbiter - comms support for other misions