As I write these words, an SUV-sized rover called Curiosity roams the rusted deserts of Mars, making its way across the floor of the 154 km diameter crater Gale. With its bevy of tools, cameras and sensors, it is reaching back billions of years to document what was once a complex of lakes and streams. On the other side of the planet, the smaller rover Opportunity continues its exploration of a vast plain called Meridiani, more than 11 years after it landed there in early 2004 and discovered the telltale geologic signature of an ancient, salty sea. Meanwhile, Opportunity's twin, Spirit, its explorations long finished, sits motionless in the Columbia Hills, where its own discoveries revealed yet another place on Mars where water once shaped what is now a bone-dry world.
Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity are just three of the robots that have explored Mars in the first decades of the twenty-first century. They will never come home to Earth, never receive the hero's welcome they certainly deserve. But, with this fascinating volume, planetary cartographer Phil Stooke has done the next best thing. He has woven their stories into an extraordinarily detailed and comprehensive chronicle of Mars exploration.
On these pages we relive the rovers’ explorations as they made the first overland treks on another planet – sol by sol, drive by drive, rock by rock. Detailed descriptions are illustrated by Stooke's own meticulously constructed maps based on the rovers’ own images and the incredibly detailed overhead views from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. We track the rovers as they surmount difficulties, including Spirit's year-long climb to the summit of Husband Hill, and Opportunity's record-setting trek across the dark plains of Meridiani, where it was stuck for several weeks in a low sand dune. Through their electronic eyes we see the vast Martian plains, the distant hills. We see dust devils whirling across the windswept landscape. We see the small Martian moons Phobos and Deimos moving across the sky, even silhouetted against a distant Sun.
Stooke also details the explorations of the Martian arctic by the Phoenix lander, which touched down there in 2008, and flyby observations from the Dawn and Rosetta missions. For his chronicles of lander and rover missions, Stooke begins with the selection of their landing sites, a painstaking effort to extract the greatest possible scientific return from each mission.