Today, Jan. 3, marks the 10th anniversary since the safe landing of NASA’s renowned Spirit rover on the plains of Mars on Jan. 3, 2004.
Spirit comprises one half of NASA’s now legendary pair of Mars Exploration Rovers (MER). Opportunity, her twin sister landed, on the opposite side of the Red Planet three weeks later – on Jan. 24, 2004. The goal was to “follow the water” as a potential enabler for past Martian microbes if they ever existed.
Exactly a decade ago, the famous robot survived the scorching atmospheric heating of the 6 minute plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere, bounced some two dozen times cocooned inside cushioning airbags, and gradually rolled to a stop inside 100 mile wide Gusev Crater. It was known as the “6 minutes of Terror”.
The three petaled landing pad opened and Spirit was dramatically born in a milestone event that will be forever remembered in the annuls of history because of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that ensued and the unbelievable longevity of the twins.
Before they were launched atop Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 from Cape Canaveral, the dynamic, solar powered robo duo were expected to last a mere three months – with a ‘warranty’ of 90 Martian days (Sols).
Either dust accumulation on the life giving solar panels, an engineering issue or the extremely harsh Martian environment was expected to somehow terminate them mercilessly.
In reality, both robots enormously exceeded expectations and accumulated a vast bonus time of exploration and discovery in numerous extended mission phases.
No one foresaw that Martian winds would occasionally clean the solar panels to give them a new lease on life or that the components would miraculously continue functioning.
Spirit endured the utterly extreme Red Planet climate for more than six years until communications ceased in 2010.
Opportunity is still roving Mars today, and doing so in rather good condition!
Altogether, Spirit drove 4.8 miles (7.73 kilometers),that’s about 12 times more than the original goal set for the mission.
She transmitted over 128,000 images.
After landing in the dusty plains, she headed for the nearby Columbia Hills some 2 miles away and ultimately became the first Martian mountaineer, when she scaled Husband Hill and found evidence for the flow of liquid water at the Hillary outcrop.
The rovers were not designed to climb hills. But eventually she scaled 30 degree inclines.
The rover was equipped with a rock grinder named the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) built by Honeybee Robotics.
Spirit ground the surfaces off 15 rock targets and scoured 92 targets with a brush to prepare the targets for inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager, according to NASA.
Eventually she drove back down the hill and made even greater scientific discoveries in the area known as ‘Home Plate’.
Spirit survived three harsh Martian winters and only succumbed to the Antarctic-like temperatures when she unexpectedly became mired in an unseen sand trap driving beside an ancient volcanic feature named ‘Home Plate’ that prevented the solar arrays from generating life giving power to safeguard critical electronic and computer components.
In 2007, Spirit made one of the key discoveries of the mission at ‘Home Plate’ when her stuck right front wheel churned up a trench of bright Martian soil that exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, which was formed in a watery hot spring or volcanic environment.
Spirit was heading towards another pair of volcanic objects named ‘von Braun’ and ‘Goddard’ and came within just a few hundred feet when she died in the sand trap.
See Spirits last panorama below – created from raw images taken in Feb. 2010 by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.
Here’s how the rovers’ principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., described some of the key findings in a NASA statement, starting with what Spirit found after driving from the crater floor where it landed into the Columbia hills to the east:
“In the Columbia Hills, we discovered compelling evidence of an ancient Mars that was a hot, wet, violent place, with volcanic explosions, hydrothermal activity, steam vents — nothing like Mars today.
“At Opportunity’s landing site, we found evidence of an early Mars that had acidic groundwater that sometimes reached the surface and evaporated away, leaving salts behind. It was an environment with liquid water, but very different from the environment that Spirit told us about.
“When Opportunity got to the rim of Endeavour Crater, we began a whole new mission. We found gypsum veins and a rich concentration of clay minerals. The clay minerals tell us about water chemistry that was neutral, instead of acidic — more favorable for microbial life, if any ever began on Mars.”
“Because of the rovers’ longevity, we essentially got four different landing sites for the price of two.”
And a pair of newly launched orbiters are streaking to the Red Planet; NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, Mars rover and MOM news.
Learn more about Curiosity, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Antares Jan. 8 launch, and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations
Jan 6-8: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia on Jan. 8” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening