Rob Manning Systems Engineer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
[D]iscoveries made through exploration of Mars have been like a slow and steady brightening of the proverbial lightbulb
What do you think are the most significant events that have occurred in the past fifty years of robotic planetary exploration? Why?
In terms of raw discovery, the flybys of Jupiter and Saturn's moons made by Voyager 1 and 2 in 1979, '80 and '81 were revolutionary.
Our view of these planetary bodies as large, round boring rocks was completely shattered by the flybys. Our solar system suddenly got a lot more exciting.
In your field of work, what are some examples of the great achievements and discoveries in planetary science and robotic exploration throughout the past 50 years?
Similar to science done on Earth, discoveries made through the exploration of Mars have been like a slow and steady brightening of the proverbial light bulb.
While we have discovered that the surface of Mars is lifeless, we have also gradually added chapters to our knowledge of the Red Planet, and in particular about the role H2O has, and continues to play, on Mars (in many forms).
We now have much stronger evidence that Mars was once habitable for Earth-like life on the surface a long time ago. And, what is more, it is not unreasonable to guess that under the surface of Mars there may remain pockets of habitable environments -- could residual life reside there? We don't know ... yet.
We got our first huge hint for underground ice with the gamma ray spectrometer (GRS) data from the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter in 2002.
Launching in 2003, the twin Mars Exploration rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity found water-altered rock on both sides of Mars.
Mars Express later found dust covered glaciers in mid-latitudes, while Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) found large areas of minerals that could have been created with water.
Now Curiosity has shown us that single cell prokaryotic life could have been happy living in some clays on Mars in the distant past. We are still far from finding life, but Mars is no longer viewed as a dead red rock.
From an engineering and humanistic perspective, I think that the landing and egress of the little Sojourner rover off of the Pathfinder lander on 4 and 5 July in 1997 was a poignant moment in planetary history. It marked a moment when humanity found itself free to virtually wander and explore the surface of another planet.