Spaceflight Insider

Our Spaceflight Heritage: celebrating an independent Spirit

Spirit's landing platform on the surface of Mars. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL

On this day in 2003, Spirit, the first of NASA’s two Mars Exploration Rovers was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 17 in Florida aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket. The rovers were built to understand if Mars was or can be a habitable world. The scientific goals of Spirit and Opportunity for exploring the Red Planet are to determine the conditions for life to thrive, characterize the climate and geology, and prepare for possible human exploration.

The MER program was designed after Sojourner, NASA’s Pathfinder mission in 1997. Some of the similarities in design are six wheels and suspension for driving over the tough Martian terrain, a protective airbag for landing, solar panels and rechargeable batteries, and heaters to protect the batteries from a cold Martian winter. However, at 384 pounds, Spirit (and its twin Opportunity), is approximately 17 times heavier than Pathfinder. The MER rovers are also twice as long at 5.2 feet and 4.9 feet tall.

Delta II Heavy lifting off with MER-A on June 10, 2003, from SLC-17A. Photo Credit: NASA/KSC

Spirit lifts off in its Delta II Heavy launch vehicle on June 10, 2003, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s now-defunct SLC-17A launch pad. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: NASA / KSC

The scientific objectives of the Mars Exploration Rover mission are to:

  1. Search for and characterize a variety of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity. In particular, samples sought will include those that have minerals deposited by water-related processes such as precipitation, evaporation, sedimentary cementation, or hydrothermal activity.
  2. Determine the distribution and composition of minerals, rocks, and soils surrounding the landing sites.
  3. Determine what geologic processes have shaped the local terrain and influenced the chemistry. Such processes could include water or wind erosion, sedimentation, hydrothermal mechanisms, volcanism, and cratering.
  4. Perform “ground truth” – calibration and validation – of surface observations made by Mars orbiter instruments. This will help determine the accuracy and effectiveness of various instruments that survey Martian geology from orbit.
  5. Search for iron-containing minerals, identify and quantify relative amounts of specific mineral types that contain water or were formed in water, such as iron-bearing carbonates.
  6. Characterize the mineralogy and textures of rocks and soils and determine the processes that created them.
  7. Search for geological clues to the environmental conditions that existed when liquid water was present. Assess whether those environments were conducive to life.
This self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is a polar projection of the panorama made from images taken by Spirit's panoramic camera (Pancam). Photo Credit: NASA / JPL / Caltech

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is a polar projection of the panorama made from images taken by Spirit’s panoramic camera (Pancam). (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: NASA / JPL / Caltech

After traveling 303 million miles from Earth, Spirit successfully landed on Mars on January 04, 2004.

Spirit carried four fixed scientific instruments:

• A panoramic (PanCam ) camera provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) which carries 14 different types of filters and gives spectral analysis of the atmosphere.

• A miniature thermal emission spectrometer (Mini-TES ) from Arizona State University was provided to identify minerals.

• A fixed HazCam was used to determine any hazards that the rover might come in contact with; the photos are taken in black and white

• Navigation Camera (Navcam ) was used to plan the next move by the rover.

The two rovers also carried five instruments on their robotic arms:

• A Mossbauer (MB ) spectrometer from Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany was used to identify iron-bearing minerals which helped scientist evaluate the role water played in the formation of the rocks.

• An alpha particle X-ray spectrometer from the Max Planck Institute was used to determine the composition of rocks by measuring the concentration of elements in the rocks and soil.

• Magnets provided by the Niels Bohr Institute for collecting magnetic dust particles.

• A microscopic imager from JPL provided clues of how the rocks and soil were formed, transported, and deposited.

• A Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) from HoneyBee Robotics was the first machine used to access the interior of another planet.

Spirit completed its three-month prime mission on Mars in April 2004, then continued operating in bonus extended missions into March 2010, when it ceased communicating. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Gustav Crater. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Spirit landed in Gustav Crater and eventually journeyed to what would come to be called the Columbia Hills. Gustav Crater is named after Russian astronomer Matvey Gusev who is considered to be one of the pioneers of photography, specifically in terms of the Moon and Sun. The Columbia Hills are seven different hilltops named in honor of the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 crew members: Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Willie McCool, and Ilan Ramon.

Spirit completed its three-month prime mission on Mars in April 2004, then continued operating in follow-on extended missions through March 2010. On May 1, 2009, Spirit became stuck in soft soil during its fifth mission extension. After numerous attempts to get her back on track, Spirit failed to send signals on January 21, 2010, as engineers figured out that her on-board computers tried to reboot itself more than 60 times over three days. They decided Spirit would become on stationary science platform five days later.

Planned for just 92 Earth days (90 Martian solar days), Spirit outlasted her scheduled mission life by almost seven years (6 years, 2 months, 19 days) almost 25 times more than the original duration and traveled 4.9 miles. As of 2014, there has been no communication with the rover since Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010). NASA announced the official end of the mission on May 25, 2011. Spirit’s accomplishments set the framework of future Martian which can be seen today via the Curiosity rover and MAVEN spacecraft – which should arrive at Mars next year.



Heather Smith's fascination for space exploration – started at the tender age of twelve while she was on a sixth-grade field trip in Kenner, Louisiana, walking through a mock-up of the International Space Station and seeing the “space potty” (her terminology has progressed considerably since that time) – she realized at this point that her future lay in the stars. Smith has come to realize that very few people have noticed how much spaceflight technology has improved their lives. She has since dedicated herself to correcting this problem. Inspired by such classic literature as Anne Frank’s Diary, she has honed her writing skills and has signed on as The Spaceflight Group’s coordinator for the organization’s social media efforts.

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