Our Spaceflight Heritage: Remembering Spirit
On June 10, 2003, the Mars rover Spirit (Mars Exploration Rover A (MER-A)) launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Space Launch Complex 17A (SLC-17A) aboard a Delta II rocket bound for Mars. Spirit was the first of two twin rovers, the other being Opportunity which followed 3 weeks later. Both rovers, built by NASA JPL, were designed to operate 90 Martian solar days (92 Earth days) on the Martian surface and were to conduct geology, communications, and search for signs conductive for past life.
MER-A was named Spirit by Sofi Collis via a student contest sponsored by NASA (she also provided the MER-B rover with its name – Opportunity).
Spirit had a mass of 400 lbs (180 kg), and, including its mast, stood more than four feet tall, and had six individually powered wheels that could propel the rover up to 2 inches per second. Spirit was powered by solar arrays that could generate 140 watts for up to four hours and up to 410 watts per Martian day (sol).
Perhaps more significantly, Spirit carried a significant load of scientific instruments and cameras. It had a diamond studded Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT), an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), a Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES), magnets to catch dust particles, a Microscope Imager (MI), and a Mossbauer spectrometer (MB). Spirit had six cameras ranging from monochrome navigation/hazcams to a high-resolution color stereoscopic panoramic camera (Pancam) that returned stunning images of the Martian surface.
Spirit landed on Mars at 04:35 Ground UTC (Earth-time) on January 4, 2004, after going through the Entry, Descent, and Landing phase of the mission. Also known as “EDL”, this part of the flight is better known as the “six minutes of terror” complicated landing sequence; the craft was slowed from 12,000 mph (19,312 km/h) to a safe, airbag-cushioned touch down on the Martian surface.
The location where the rover had settled down was named “Columbia Memorial Station” after the lost crew of Space Shuttle Columbia. The nearby hills were also named after the crew with one of these hills eventually being explored by the rover.
Spirit’s mission objectives were to search for past water activity, conduct geology studies, search for conditions conducive to life, and to validate the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s data gathered from on orbit above the flash-frozen world.
Spirit made significant discoveries including hints of a watery past, salts, and silica in the soil. Spirit was the first man-made object to grind a rock, called Adirondack, on another planet, the first to perform microscopic inspections of the ground area, the first to photograph Earth from another planet, the first to drive backwards after a front wheel failure, and the first to photograph Mars’ two moons passing overhead.
Spirit also had the first distinction of photographing Martian dust devils and have its solar panels cleaned by them several times over the years, thereby improving their efficiency and significantly extending the duration of the mission.
Spirit operated far past its original 90-sol design – lasting for 5 years, 3 months, and 27 Earth days before getting stuck in soft soil. Spirit had traveled 4.8 miles (7.73 km) on the planet. It continued to work as a stationary science platform until it stopped communicating on March 22, 2010, and its mission was formally declared over by NASA on May 24, 2011 – more than a year after its last communication.
Spirit and Opportunity’s legacy progresses on with their current descendant – the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. The succession will continue when NASA launches the next rover to trundle through the Martian dust – the 2020 Mars rover – when it launches in five years time.
Spirit’s sister rover, Opportunity, still continues to operate to this very day. It has been working on Mars for 11 years since it had landed. Both of the MER rovers helped to redefine how humanity views the Red Planet, and it all started with the flight of a Delta II rocket on this day in spaceflight history.
Gregory N. Cecil is the only Florida State Certified Educator and Nationally Certified Aerospace Technician in the nation. He holds a Masters in Aeronautical Science: Space Operations Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and worked on the Space Shuttle Program. He is a science teacher and has taught in both public and private schools. Gregory has written over 50 articles relating to the space program and continues to contribute to the promotion of space.