What were you doing five years ago today? I remember trying to watch NASA TV on my computer in an effort to monitor the status of the Spirit rover that was on its way to land in Gusev Crater on Mars. The feed kept cutting out, and I know it was way behind what was happening in real time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The scientists and engineers there were certainly more anxious than I, but even I had butterflies in my stomach. During the entry and landing, the spacecraft with Spirit aboard maintained radio contact with flight controllers at JPL through a series of tones designed to transmit the status of the lander. The flight team was even able to detect that the lander was bouncing on the surface of Mars, secure in the inflated airbags. But the tones suddenly stopped and there was no signal from the lander for several minutes. The flight control room erupted when the spacecraft sent the signal that it was sitting safely on the Red Planet.
“There was a lot of jumping, hugging and even a few tears of relief here at JPL,” said Chris Potts, who was the MER Deputy Navigation Team Chief back in 2004. “There were definitely some tense moments when we lost the signal after confirmation of bouncing on the surface. Mars just wanted us to wait a bit longer.” The wait was definitely worth it, and now five years later, Spirit and her twin rover Opportunity are still working hard on Mars’ surface. That fact is truly cause for celebration, and there are a few ways you can join in celebrating…
One way to celebrate is to read the three part-article here on Universe Today where we talked with rover driver Scott Maxwell about 1. the rovers’ current status, 2. what its like to drive the rovers, and 3. what the past five years have been like.
Another way to celebrate is to check out Scott Maxwell’s blog, “Mars and Me.” Tonight (Saturday) he is going to start making public his “diary” of the past five years, “The diary of a Mars rover driver, I suppose you could say,” Scott writes in his blog. “I’ve decided to make them public now, as a thank-you to everyone who’s followed the mission for so long, everyone who’s dreamed of being part of it. This is what it was like for one person who was, and still is, part of that mission. This is what it was like to be one person living a small part of a grand, historic adventure.”
Still another way to celebrate is to listen to Emily Lakdawalla on the Jan. 3rd 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast talk about Spirit’s five years on Mars. The transcript is also available on the site if you’d rather read it.
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You can also enjoy Stuart Atkinson’s blog (we’re not related, but he’s a great guy nonetheless!) Cumbrian Sky, where he has put together a great birthday Photoshop image of Spirit, and shares what the last five years have been like for him.
If you haven’t seen JPL’s Five Years on Mars video, I highly recommend it.
Also, the image at the top of this article is a full 360-degree panorama from Spirit’s panoramic camera (Pancam). Click on the image to get the full resolution, and to read the notations which indicate locations for several events of the first five Earth years since Spirit landed inside Gusev Crater.
Happy Birthday Spirit!