Exactly 12 Years ago this week, NASA’s now famous Spirit rover touched down on the Red Planet, starting a spectacular years long campaign of then unimaginable science adventures that ended up revolutionizing our understanding of Mars due to her totally unexpected longevity.
For although she was only “warrantied” to function a mere 90 Martian days, or sols, the six wheeled emissary from Earth survived more than six years – and was thus transformed into the world renowned robot still endearing to humanity today.
Spirit even became the first Martian mountaineer! – ascending up to the summit of ‘Husband Hill’ and back down – see our illustrative mountaintop mosaic below. This “star trek” led directly to breakthrough discoveries proving that liquid water flowed on a vastly different and warmer Mars billions of years ago.
And to top that off, Spirit was only one half of a marvelous sister act of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) that continues to this day.
Her younger twin sister Opportunity endures today, trundling forth on the opposite side of the Red Planet continuing to expand on their jointly established heritage of endless groundbreaking discoveries.
Together they each conducted the first overland expeditions on another planet. In essence they are truly the first long roving “Martians.”
Jan. 3 marks the 12th anniversary since Spirit’s safe landing on the plains of Mars inside 100-mile-wide Gusev crater on Jan. 3, 2004, after smashing into the thin Martian atmosphere and surviving the harrowing descent and scorching temperatures dubbed the “Six Minutes of Terror!”
Twin sister Opportunity likewise plummeted through the Martian atmosphere and landed on the plains of Meridiani on the opposite hemisphere three weeks later – on Jan. 24, 2004.
After carefully choreographed retro rocket, parachute and airbag assisted landings both sisters bounced some two dozen times while carefully cushioned inside their cocoon like carriers, before rolling to a stop, unfolding and driving down from the three petaled lander pedestal days later onto the alien terrain to begin their research expeditions.
The goal was to “follow the water” as a potential enabler for past Martian microbes if they ever existed.
Together, the long-lived, golf cart sized robots proved that early Mars was warm and wet, billions of years ago – a key finding in the search for habitats conducive to life beyond Earth.
During her more than six year lifetime spanning until March 2010, Spirit discovered compelling evidence that ancient Mars exhibited hydrothermal activity, hot springs and volcanic explosions flowing with water.
“Spirit’s big scientific accomplishments are the silica deposits at Home Plate, the carbonates at Comanche, and all the evidence for hydrothermal systems and explosive volcanism, Rover Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, told Universe Today in a prior interview.
“What we’ve learned is that early Mars at Spirit’s site was a hot, violent place, with hot springs, steam vents, and volcanic explosions. It was extraordinarily different from the Mars of today.”
Altogether the golf cart sized Spirit snapped over 128,000 raw images, drove 4.8 miles (7.73 kilometers) – about 12 times more than the original goal set for the mission and ground into 15 rock targets.
See Spirits last panorama below – created from raw images taken in Feb. 2010 by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo. Featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 30 May 2011
Before they were launched atop Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the solar powered robo dynamic 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 or computer malfunction, or the extremely harsh Martian environment with daily temperatures plunging to Antarctic-like lows was expected to 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.
See herein a collection of some of Spirit’s greatest hits on the Red Planet for all to enjoy and remember her fabulous exploits.
Opportunity is still roving Mars today, and doing so in rather good condition!
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
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 during winter, stuck in the sand trap.
Thus Spirit was dramatically born and lived through milestone events that will be forever remembered in the annuls of history because of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that ensued, due to the unexpected and unbelievable longevity of the NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers.
No one on the team expected them to last much past none months or so.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.