NASA scientist explains Mars rovers’ achievements to UAA

For thousands of years our neighbor planet Mars has been a source of intrigue and curiosity to people on Earth. In the United States, scientists have come a long way in discovering the past of the red planet.

John Callas, science manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spoke Nov. 11 to an overflowing crowd that was eager to learn the latest news about Mars.

The Fine Arts Building lecture hall was so packed that organizers opened an adjacent lecture hall that filled up in no time. This audience watched Callas’ presentation via a video feed projected onto a screen.

Callas wowed the UAA community with what he and his peers have found during their exploration and what they have yet to discover.

The presentation was funded and organized by the UAA Honors Program, which is headed by Ron Spatz, who, according to his colleagues, was the cornerstone in the planning of the event. One such colleague, Larry Foster, introduced the scientist of the hour with zeal and eccentricity privileged only to math professors.

“The exploration of Mars; I cannot think of anything more exciting, except perhaps taking my calculus course,” Foster said.

As Callas began his speech, he set the tone with a bleak description of Mars as a desolate planet of extreme temperatures. Yet, past his opening lines, Callas painted no more cold pictures and spoke with an enthusiasm of a man who is on the brink of discovery and possibility.

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“This is a whole new field of exploration,” Callas said. “In fact, Alaskans might have to change from the final frontier state to the final frontier on Earth state.”

The most thrilling part of the presentation was the many slides of Mars and its landscape, some of which were only a week old. Callas also talked about how the two current Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are reaching new grounds.

The technology used today is far from that of the first missions to Mars. Viking missions date back as far as the 1970s, but it was the short-range rover project in the late 1990s that proved mobility on Mars was both possible and necessary to further NASA’s exploration.

“Imagine going on a fantastic vacation and seeing all the wonderful sights, but not being able to get out of the car, and then the car is stalled,” Callas said. “With Spirit and Opportunity we were finally able to go over to those rocks that before we had only seen.”

Callas joked that JPL didn’t stand for Jet Propulsion Lab but for “just plain luck,” because NASA has experienced a successful mission so far.

Spirit and Opportunity left Earth with a life expectancy on Mars of 90 days and a roving distance of 600 meters. Both rovers have exceeded these expectations and survived the Martian winter, perhaps the greatest obstacle.

The two rovers, while on different sides of the planet, are both exploring craters where it appears that water once existed. The rovers have sent back photographs of bedrock with sedimentary layers, which Callas said shows that Mars was a briny planet. As the layers of rock become younger, they also become saltier, which suggests the water on Mars was evaporating over time. Why did the waters of Mars disappear? That’s one of Callas’ biggest questions.

But for now many mysteries of Mars still remain, and it is without question that Callas will continue to try and unravel some of them. It is also without question that parts of Mars will remain a mystery throughout these missions, throughout this decade and throughout our lives.

NL Features editor Natalia Korshin contributed to this story.

To see the photos that Spirit and Opportunity have taken during their journey, visit