From the June 2003 issue

Mars wanderings

A mock-up of the Mars Exploration Rovers take scientists and engineers on an exploratory journey that tests their ability to one day rove on Mars.
By | Published: June 3, 2003 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
This FIDO rover was first tested in May 2000.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Scheduled for launch in June 2003, the two Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) take with them several years of experience exploring simulated martian environments. Along with testing the actual MER-A and MER-B in laboratory environments, a third rover, FIDO (Field Integrated Design and Operations), was subjected to testing in locations like the Mojave Desert in California and Black Rock Summit in Nevada. Along for FIDO’s ride during the August 2002 field tests were a group of 10 high school students from around the United States. Working side-by-side with engineers and scientists, these students worked to determine how the vagabond rover stood up to the dust and dirt of the real world. Conducting control tests and simulated experiments, this team of teens and professionals spent 10 days rushing through tests that would be covered in 26 martian days (sols) by the Mars Exploration Rovers.

Adding to the reality of the simulation, the students, scientists, and engineers stayed back at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “mission control” while the rover was off exploring. The control team wasn’t told exactly where the rover was, and like a NASA version of “Where in the Desert is Carmen Sandiego,” they had to use every clue they could find to learn about FIDO’s location. This simple act of secrecy prevented planetary geologists on the team from using any knowledge they had of FIDO’s “landing site” to make the testing easier. Complicating things further, commands sent to the rover were artificially delayed by 12 to 16 minutes, creating a lag in communications similar to the lag experienced when commands are sent to and from Mars.

Ranging across rocks and hills, this diverse testing-team imaged landscapes, sampled soil, and confirmed that advanced rovers have the potential to bring new clarity to our understanding of Mars. Along the way, their simulations helped to “prove” that water once flowed across the desert. This “discovery” highlights the Mars Exploration Rovers’ ability to find signs of water — and maybe even evidence of life — on the Red Planet.