The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity in the summer of 2003 with the goal of having the machines survive and transmit data from the Martian surface for three months. Spirit, which sent more than 128,000 images of Mars back to Earth, worked for about seven years before it became stuck in soft sand and was abandoned in 2010, but Opportunity is still operational more than 10 years after its launch.
"The robots we put down on Mars are our avatars right now," says NASA scientist John Connolly. "They are our eyes, our feet, our hands on the ground that inform us before we get there. Without these robots doing this work, it would be a very risky endeavor getting to Mars."
In addition, sending humans to Mars largely depends on the information the robotic rovers and the Mars orbiters send back about the planet's geology, mineral makeup, water reserves, and atmosphere. NASA wants to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, but first the space agency plans to send at least one more rover and more orbiters to make more discoveries.
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