Our Spaceflight Heritage: Mars Exploration Rover Spirit remembered 13 years after landing
The landing of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Spirit in January 2004 marked the beginning 13 years of continuous robotic operations on the surface of the Red Planet. In that time, multiple spacecraft, including Spirit, have beamed back textbook-rewriting information about past water activity on the red world.
Of course, Spirit cannot be mentioned without also including its twin rover, Opportunity. While Spirit is no longer operational, the two of them make an iconic pair that has tallied a combined 29.8 miles (48 kilometers) on the odometer since landing on Mars, with their numbers only growing.
The rovers had an initial goal to travel a short 1,970-foot (600-meter) distance in support a mission of 90 Martian solar days, also called a sol, one of which equals 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds. Both handily surpassed that modest operational requirement by a significant margin. Opportunity continues to advance the benchmark with every passing sol.
Launched nearly a month apart in 2003, the twin robotic explorers were designed to examine different parts of the planet’s surface in hopes of finding clues about Mars’s geologic history that would help determine if the Red Planet ever had water on its surface.
Spirit, officially designated MER-A, lifted off atop a Boeing Delta II on June 10, 2003, on an approximately 7-month voyage to Mars, bouncing to a landing in Gusev Crater at 11:35 p.m. EST on Jan. 3, 2004 (04:35 GMT on Jan. 4, 2004).
Opportunity, MER-B, launched almost a month after its twin, rocketing off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 17 (SLC-17) in Florida on July 7, 2003, and was the first payload to be launched by the Delta II Heavy. Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars on Jan. 24, 2004, just three weeks after Spirit.
Spirit’s Storied Life
Spirit operated for six years, far beyond its initial design specification. In 2010, it became stuck in soft sand and was unable to reorient itself to place its solar panels in a Sun-facing position. Because of that, it was unable to survive the brutal Martian winter. It ultimately succumbed to the frigid temperatures.
Although falling silent long before its still-functioning sibling, Spirit made a multitude of scientific discoveries in its 6-year life and contributed to a number of “firsts”.
Not long after landing, instruments aboard Spirit identified the rocks in-and-around Gusev Crater to be predominately basaltic in make-up, suggesting the area had once been host to a meeting of volcanic forces and water.
Spirit also made a bit of photographic history. In snapping a picture of Earth from Mars, it became the first explorer to image our home planet from the surface of another planet.
As structured as many of the rover’s day-to-day operations may have been, there was a fair amount of luck involved with Spirit’s survival and some of its scientific discoveries.
In 2006, the rover’s right-front wheel stopped working after years of strain. So, to make driving easier and more accurate with a stuck wheel, the now five-wheeled rover was commanded to drive in reverse.
This effectively began tilling up the red Martian soil as the rover dragged the damaged wheel along. During one of the driving sessions, the rover’s handlers noticed that the freshly dredged soil was bright white in color, in marked contrast to the general reddish color of the area.
Investigators surmised that Spirit uncovered silica, which on Earth is usually formed when certain minerals react with hot water. This suggested the landing area had, at one time, been wet and warm enough to have, perhaps, been favorable for life.
While the final chapter of Spirit’s life may have come to a close on May 24, 2011, when NASA declared the rover dead, more than a year after its final communication with operators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, its counterpart continues to relay vital science and uncover new information from its landing site on the Red Planet, Meridiani Planum.
Opportunity will mark its 13th year of active operation on January 24, 2017.
Video courtesy of NASA
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.