NASA’s world famous Mars Exploration RoverOpportunity continues blazing a daily trail of unprecedented science first’s, still swinging her robotic arm robustly into action at a Martian “Mining Zone” on the 12th anniversary of her hair-raising Red Planet touchdown this week, a top rover scientist told Universe Today.
A Moment Frozen in Time
On May 19th, 2005, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars. This Panoramic Camera (Pancam) mosaic was taken around 6:07 in the evening of Sol 489. The terrain in the foreground is the rock outcrop “Jibsheet,” a feature that Spirit has been investigating for several weeks (rover tracks are dimly visible leading up to “Jibsheet”). The floor of Gusev crater is visible in the distance, and the Sun is setting behind the wall of Gusev some 80 km (50 miles) in the distance.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell
See photo gallery below[/caption]
But a decade ago, NASA’s six wheeled Spirit rover was but a promise of great things to come. And her rich Martian scientific heritage we know today was but a dream yet to ensue
Jan. 3 marks the 10th anniversary since her touchdown on Mars on Jan. 3, 2004. Her twin sister Opportunity soft landed 3 weeks later on Jan. 24, 2004.
So here’s a collection of some of Spirit’s greatest hits on the Red Planet for all to enjoy and remember her fabulous exploits.
Read my detailed new overview marking ‘Spirits 10 Years on Mars’ – here – with even more spectacular Red Planet imagery!
Since the golf cart sized Spirit snapped over 128,000 raw images, drove 4.8 miles and ground into 15 rock targets we can’t show everything.
Here’s a retrospective of some of our favorites.
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, explained to me in an earlier 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.”
Ten Years Ago, Spirit Rover Lands on Mars
This bird’s-eye view from August 2005 combines a self-portrait of the spacecraft deck and a panoramic mosaic of the Martian surface as viewed by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. The rover’s solar panels are still gleaming in the sunlight, having acquired only a thin veneer of dust two years after the rover landed and commenced exploring the red planet. Spirit captured this 360-degree panorama on the summit of “Husband Hill” inside Mars’ Gusev Crater. During the period from Spirit’s Martian days, or sols, 583 to 586 (Aug. 24 to 27, 2005), the rover’s panoramic camera acquired the hundreds of individual frames for this largest panorama ever photographed by Spirit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
See Spirit’s 1st and last panoramas and more imagery below[/caption]
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.
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.
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.”
The hibernating Spirit rover hasn’t communicated with Earth since March 22 of this year, and while everyone hopes for the best, NASA, it seems, wants to brace rover fans for the worst, just in case. The space agency has dutifully issued a couple of press releases the past few months saying it is possible we may not hear from the rover again. Even Cornell University – home of MER PI Steve Squyres — featured an article in their Daily Sun newspaper this week with the headline, “Mars Rover May Have Lost Power for Good.” But yet, Squyres is quoted “Spirit hasn’t died; we haven’t heard from it, but we suspect it is still alive and we are waiting to hear from it.”
So what are Spirit’s chances? And what are the real sentiments of everyone on the rover team –has anyone actually forsaken hope of hearing from the plucky rover that surprised us time and time again? Universe Today checked in with Mars rover driver Scott Maxwell for an update:
“I don’t have the sense that anyone around here has given up on Spirit,” Maxwell said in an email. “The general consensus, I think, is that she’ll wait until a day or so past the last time anyone expects to hear from her, and then pop up with 800 Watt-hours per sol.”
That’s the Spirit rover, for you. Always full of surprises.
And a robotic version of Lazarus rising from the dead wouldn’t be all that astounding. In the past, she has amazed us all by doing things like being able to climb to the top of Husband Hill and shuffle back down again, then continuing to keep on truckin’ even when a wheel gave out – years ago, and lately, she still provided scientific discoveries even while asleep.
Even though it seems like ages since we’ve heard from the rover, remember that the Martian winter in Spirit’s location runs through November here on Earth, so it hasn’t even started to really warm up yet.
“There was a long, low-probability period starting about late July or early August when we didn’t expect to hear from her, but we theoretically could have,” Maxwell said. “That probably contributes to the idea that we “should” have heard from her by now — but really, there was just a low, flat, leading edge of the probability curve.”
Back in July, rover engineers began a “sweep and beep” campaign, where instead of just listening, they send commands to the rover to respond back with a communications beep. If the rover is awake and hears the call, she will send back a beep.
But we haven’t heard a beep yet.
The rover is likely in a low-power hibernation mode since it wasn’t able to get to a favorable slope to capture sunlight on its solar panels during its fourth Martian winter. The low angle of sunlight during these months limits the power able to be generated. During hibernation, the rover shuts down communications and other activities so available energy can be used to recharge and heat the batteries, and to keep the mission clock running.
Maxwell said their models say the solar power at Gusev Crater should just now be getting good enough that Spirit could have multiple wakeups per sol. “Theoretically we have a shot at getting our “beep” sequence in on any of those wakeups,” he said. “It’s still the case that any individual wakeup presents us only with a low-probability chance of hearing from her, we just potentially get more of those chances per unit of time.”
It is kind a crapshoot, however, Maxwell said, and it might still be weeks or even months before they get the winning pull of the slot machine handle.
Maxwell is optimistic, and although he didn’t give any percentages on how likely it is that Spirit will wake up, he said the situation is certainly not dire…yet.
“Having said all that, it would be awfully nice to actually get a beep from Spirit and know she’s there,” Maxwell said. “I miss her. I hope she calls home soon.”
Hang in there, Spirit. And you, too, Scott, and all your rover compatriots.