The Lander platform for NASA’s Spirit rover has been photographed in stunning high resolution color for the first time from Mars orbit – just over 8 years after the now legendary robot survived the scorching atmospheric heat of the 6 minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere and bounced to a stop inside Gusev Crater on January 3, 2004.

Spirit’s three petaled landing pad was finally imaged in color by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft just days ago on January 29, 2012 at 3:04 p.m. local Mars time.

The MRO spacecraft was soaring overhead and captured the image of Spirit’s lander with the high resolution HiRISE camera from a distance of some 262 kilometers, (162 miles).

“HiRISE has never before imaged the actual lander for the Spirit rover in color, [located] on the west side of Bonneville Crater,” writes Alfred McEwen, HiRISE Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona.

1st Color image of Spirit Lander and Bonneville Crater from Mars orbit
Spirit landing pad at lower left; Bonneville Crater rim at top right.

While protectively cocooned inside the airbag cushioned lander, Spirit bounced about two dozen times before rolling to rest on the Martian plains about ¼ mile away from Bonneville Crater. Then her landing petals unfurled, the airbags were partially retracted and Spirit eventually drove off the landing pad.

“The lander is still bright, but with a reddish color, probably due to a [Martian] dust cover.”

Spirit rover images her Lander Platform after Egress
- Now imaged for the 1st time from Mars orbit by NASA’s MRO spacecraft. Lander had 3-petals and airbags. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Spirit initially drove to Bonneville Crater and circumnavigated part way around the rim before speeding off towards the Columbia Hills, about 2 miles to the East. She eventually scaled the summit of Husband Hill and drove down the opposite side to the Home Plate” volcanic feature where she rests today – see travse map below.

“A bright spot from a remnant of the heat shield is still visible on the north rim of Bonneville Crater. The backshell and parachute are still bright, but were not captured in the narrow color swath.”

“The rover itself can still be seen near “Home Plate” in the Columbia Hills, but there is no obvious sign of rover tracks–erased by the wind,” McEwen notes.

Here is a photo taken by Spirit looking back to the lander – now imaged in color from orbit for the first time – for a comparative view, before she drove off forever.

Spirit endured for more than six years of bonus time exploration beyond her planned 90 day mission. And Opportunity is still roving Mars today !

Spirit Rover traverse map from Gusev Crater landing site near Bonneville Crater to Columbia Hills to Home Plate: 2004 to 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA/HiRISE

Curiosity – NASA’s newest, biggest ever and maybe last Mars rover – is speeding through interplanetary space for an August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater.

Read my 8th Year Anniversary articles about Spirit and Opportunity on Mars – here and here

Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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