Terran Fleet at Mars Takes a Break for Conjunction – Enjoy the Video and Parting View

Curiosity and Mount Sharp – Parting Shot ahead of Mars Solar Conjunction
Enjoy this parting view of Curiosity’s elevated robotic arm and drill staring at you; back dropped with her ultimate destination – Mount Sharp – in this panoramic vista of Yellowknife Bay basin snapped on March 23, Sol 223, by the rover’s navigation camera system. The raw images were stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com)
See video below explaining Mars Solar Conjunction[/caption]

Earth’s science invasion fleet at Mars is taking a break from speaking with their handlers back on Earth.

Why ? Because as happens every 26 months, the sun has gotten directly in the way of Mars and Earth.

Earth, Mars and the Sun are lined up in nearly a straight line. The geometry is normal and it’s called ‘Mars Solar Conjunction’.

Conjunction officially started on April 4 and lasts until around May 1.

From our perspective here on Earth, Mars will be passing behind the Sun.

Watch this brief NASA JPL video for an explanation of Mars Solar Conjunction.

Therefore the Terran fleet will be on its own for the next month since the sun will be blocking nearly all communications.

In fact since the sun can disrupt and garble communications, mission controllers will be pretty much suspending transmissions and commands so as not to inadvertently create serious problems that could damage the fleet in a worst case scenario.

Right now there are a trio of orbiters and a duo of rovers from NASA and ESA exploring Mars.

The spacecraft include the Curiosity (MSL) and Opportunity (MER) rovers from NASA. Also the Mars Express orbiter from ESA and the Mars Odyssey (MO) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) from NASA.

Geometry of Mars Solar Conjunction
Geometry of Mars Solar Conjunction

Because several of these robotic assets have been at Mars for nearly 10 years and longer, the engineering teams have a lot of experience with handling them during the month long conjunction period.

“This is our sixth conjunction for Odyssey,” said Chris Potts of JPL, mission manager for NASA’s Mars Odyssey, which has been orbiting Mars since 2001. “We have plenty of useful experience dealing with them, though each conjunction is a little different.”

But there is something new this go round.

“The biggest difference for this 2013 conjunction is having Curiosity on Mars,” Potts said. Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter relay almost all data coming from Curiosity and the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, as well as conducting the orbiters’ own science observations.

The rovers and orbiters can continue working and collecting science images and spectral data.

But that data will all be stored in the on board memory for a post-conjunction playback starting sometime in May.

Ken Kremer


Learn more about Curiosity’s groundbreaking discoveries and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus Orion, SpaceX, Antares, the Space Shuttle and more! NEAF Astronomy Forum, Suffern, NY

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

Opportunity Rover Starts Year 10 on Mars with Remarkable Science Discoveries

Image caption: Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years and 3200 Sols on Mars snapping this panoramic view from her current location on ‘Matijevic Hill’ at Endeavour Crater. The rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013). “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

9 Years ago, NASA’s pair of identical twin sister rovers – christened Spirit & Opportunity- bounced to daunting airbag-cushioned landings on opposite sides of the Red Planet for what was supposed to be merely 90 day missions, or maybe a little bit longer scientists hoped.

Today, Opportunity celebrates a truly unfathomable achievement, starting Year 10 on Mars since she rolled to a bumpy stop on January 24, 2004 inside tiny Eagle crater. And she’s now at a super sweet spot for science (see our photo mosaic above) loaded with clays and veined minerals and making the most remarkable findings yet about the planets watery past – thus building upon a long string of previously unthinkable discoveries due to her totally unforeseen longevity.

“Regarding achieving nine years, I never thought we’d achieve nine months!” Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told Universe Today for this article commemorating Opportunity’s 9th anniversary.

Opportunity reached 3200 Sols, or Martian days, and counting , by her 9th birthday. She is now 108 months into the 3 month primary mission – that’s 36 times longer than the 3 month “warranty.”

“Every sol is a gift,” Squyres told me. He always refers to the rovers as our “Priceless assets on Mars”, that have to be taken good care of to wring out the maximum science data possible and for as long as humanly, or more aptly, robotically possible.


Image Caption: ‘Matijevic Hill’ Panorama for Rover’s Ninth Anniversary. As Opportunity neared the ninth anniversary of its landing on Mars, the rover was working in the ‘Matijevic Hill’ area seen in this view from Opportunity’s panoramic camera (Pancam). Two of the features investigated at Matijevic Hill are “Copper Cliff,” the dark outcrop in the left center of the image, and “Whitewater Lake,” the bright outcrop on the far right. The component images for this mosaic were taken from Sol 3137 (Nov. 19, 2012) through Sol 3150 (Dec. 3, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

The resilient, solar powered Opportunity robot begins her 10th year roving around beautifully Earth-like Martian terrain where where she proved that potentially life sustaining liquid water once flowed billions of years ago when the planet was warmer and wetter.

Opportunity is healthy and has driven over 22 miles (35 kilometers )- marking the first overland expedition on another planet. See our photo mosaics and route map by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

She is now working at the inboard edge of “Cape York” – a hilly segment of the eroded rim of 14 mile (22 km) wide Endeavour Crater, featuring terrain with older rocks than previously inspected and unlike anything studied before. It’s a place no one ever dared dream of reaching prior to launch in the summer of 2003 and landing on the Meridiani Planum region of Mars.

“It’s like a whole new mission since we arrived at Cape York,” says Squyres.

Opportunity Sol 3182_3Ba_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years on Mars snapping this panoramic view of the vast expanse of 14 mile (22 km) wide Endeavour Crater from atop ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Sol 3182 (Jan. 5, 2013). The rover then drove 43 feet to arrive at ‘Whitewater Lake’ and investigate clay minerals. Photo mosaic was stitched from Navcam images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Today Opportunity is poised for breakthrough science at deposits of phyllosilicates – clay minerals which stem from an earlier epoch when liquid water flowed on Mars eons ago and perhaps may have been more favorable to sustaining microbial life because they form in more neutral pH water. Endeavour Crater is more than 3 Billion years old.

I asked Squyres to discuss the discovery of the phyllosilicates – which have never before been analyzed up close on the Martian surface and are actually a main target of NASA’s new Curiosity rover at Gale Crater.

“We have found the phyllosilicates at Cape York: they’re in the Whitewater Lake materials,” Squyres explained. Spectral data collected from Mars orbit by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s MRO circling spacecraft allowed the researchers to direct Opportunity to this exact spot.

“Whitewater Lake” is an area of bright local outcrops currently being investigated and providing information about a different and apparently less acidic environment compared to other areas and craters visited earlier in the mission – and potentially more conducive to life.

Opportunity also discovered more mineral veins at “Whitewater Lake”, in addition to those hydrated mineral veins discovered earlier at Cape York at a spot named “Homestake” – see our mosaic below.

“We have investigated the veins in these materials, and we have determined that they are calcium sulfate,” Squyres confirmed to me.

Opportunity Sol 2761_2a_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Opportunity discovers hydrated Mineral Vein at Endeavour Crater – November 2011. Opportunity determined that the ‘Homestake’ mineral vein was composed of calcium sulfate,or gypsum, while exploring around the base of Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The vein discovery indicates the ancient flow of liquid water at this spot on Mars. This panoramic mosaic of images was taken on Sol 2761, November 2011, and illustrates the exact spot of the mineral vein discovery. Featured on NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.

How do the new mineral veins compare to those at ‘Homestake’ and those just found by Curiosity at Yellowknife Bay inside Gale crater? I asked Sqyures.

“Much narrower, and possibly older,” he said compared to the Homestake calcium sulfate veins .

“It’s too early to say how they compare to the veins at Gale, though.”

The local area at “Cape York” is called “Matijevic Hill” – in honor of a recently deceased team member who played a key role on NASA’s Mars rovers.

The rover has already spent a few months at “Matijevic Hill” on a ‘walk about’ scouting survey and also found concretions dubbed “newberries” that are different from the “blueberry” concretions found earlier in the mission.

How widespread are the phyllosilicates ?

“Matijevic Hill is the only exposure of phyllosilicates we know of at Cape York, so in order to find more we’re going to have to go elsewhere,” Squyres replied. “We haven’t figured out what the “newberries” are yet, but attempting to do that will be our next task.”

It is likely to take many more weeks and even months to “figure out” what this all means for science.

Therefore, no one should expect the robot to move much in the near future. Since the rover made landfall at the western rim of Endeavour crater at Spirit Point in August 2011, she has been circling around Cape York ever since.

Opportunity Sol 2678c_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Opportunity rover first arrived at the western rim of Endeavour Crater (14 miles, 22 km wide) in August 2011. This photo mosaic of navcam images shows portions of the segmented rim of Endeavour crater on Sol 2678. Large ejecta blocks from a smaller nearby crater are visible in the middle. At Endeavour, Opportunity will investigate the oldest minerals deposits she has ever visited from billions of years ago and which may hold clues to environments that were potentially habitable for microbial life. The rover may eventually drive to Cape Tribulation at right if she survives. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

What is the next destination for Opportunity?

“Once we’re done at Cape York, our next destination will be Solander Point [to the south],” Squyres confirmed. It’s the next rim segment south of Cape York (see map).

Eventually, if Opportunity continues to function and survives the next Martian winter, she may be directed several miles even further south, along the crater rim to a spot called Cape Tribulation – because it also harbors caches of phyllosilicate clay minerals. But there is no telling when that might be.

“One step at a time,” said Squyres as always. He is not making any guesses or predictions. The mission is totally discovery driven.

Well after so many great science discoveries over the past 9 years, I asked Squyres to describe the context and significance of the phyllosilicates discovery?

“Impossible to say, I’m afraid… we’re still figuring this place out; I can’t put it in context yet,” Squyres concluded.

Thus, there is still so much more bountiful science research still to be done by Opportunity – and nobody is making any forecasts on how long she might yet survive.

So just keep praying to the Martian weather gods for occasional winds and “dust devils” to clean off those life giving solar panels – and to the US Congress to provide the essential funding.

Ken Kremer

Opportunity Sol 2852a_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Opportunity Phones Home – Dusty Self Portrait from Endeavour Crater on Mars on Sol 2852, February 2012. NASA’s rover Opportunity snaps self-portrait where she endured 5th frigid Martian winter at Greeley Haven. Opportunity is currently investigating Cape York ridge and Matijevic Hill at right. Vast expanse of Endeavour Crater and rim in background with dusty solar panels and full on view of the High Gain Antenna (HGA) in the foreground. Mosaic: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Opportunity Sol 2681a_annotated_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity, Sol 2681, August 2011 on arrival at the rim of Endeavour and Cape York ridge. Odyssey crater visible at left. Mineral veins were later found to surround Cape York. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Opportunity Route map_3187s_Ken Kremer

Image caption: Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 – shows the entire path the rover has driven over 9 years, 3200 Sols and more than 22 miles (35 km) from Eagle Crater landing site to current location at Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Spirit Lander – 1st Color Image from Mars Orbit


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

Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit


Opportunity has just been imaged in high resolution at Endeavour crater by a powerful NASA camera orbiting overhead in Mars orbit. The new image (see above) was snapped while NASA’s long lived robot was climbing a hilltop offering spectacular panoramic vistas peering into the vast crater which is some 14 miles (22 km) wide.

The HiRiSE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photographed Opportunity and her wheel tracks on September 10, 2011, or Martian Sol 2712 for a mission warrentied to last only 90 Sols ! The rover is sitting to the right of another small crater known as Odyssey. Click to enlarge the image.

Look very closely and you’ll even be able to easily discern the rovers pair of tire tracks showing the path traversed by the robot as she explores the crater and the ejecta rocks and boulders excavated and strewn about by an ancient impact.

Opportunity imaged at Endeavour crater rim with wheel tracks exploring Odyssey crater, rocks and boulders climbing up Cape York ridge. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Opportunity is ascending up the rim of Endeavour crater at the southern tip of a low ridge dubbed Cape York – a location that has already yielded a bonanza of new science data since her recent arrival in August 2011 after a more than 20 mile (33 km) epic trek.

The intrepid rover discovered a rock unlike any other since she safely landed at the Meridiani Planum region of Mars nearly eight years ago on Jan. 24, 2004.

Opportunity is now searching Endeavour crater and Cape York for signatures of phyllosilicates – clay minerals that formed in the presence of pH neutral water flowing on Mars surface billions of years ago.

Cape York ridge at Endeavour Crater - From Orbit
This image taken from Mars orbit shows the path driven by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in the weeks around the rover's arrival at the rim of Endeavour crater and up to Sol 2688. Opportunity has since driven a short distance to the right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity, Sol 2681, August 2011
Opportunity arrived at the rim of Endeavour on Sol 2681, August 9, 2011 and climbed up the ridge known as Cape York. Odyssey crater is visible at left. Opportunity has since driven a short distance beyond Odyssey crater and was photographed from Mars orbit on Sept. 10, 2011.
Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars Rover
NASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes

In Memoriam: Spirit Rover, 2004-2010


If you’re feeling a little sad today at the news that the Spirit rover is “dead,” you’re not alone. And we all know we’re anthropomorphizing here, but it is hard not to. As MER project manager John Callas said at yesterday’s press conference, the MER rovers are “the cutest darn things out in the solar system,” and yes, we’ve become attached to them. Below are a few quotes we’ve gathered from Steve Squyres, Scott Maxwell, and some of the other people who have been involved with the MER mission in various capacities.

Feel free to add your best memories of Spirit’s mission in the comment section.

Rover Driver Scott Maxwell with a model of MER. Photo courtesy Scott Maxwell

Rover Driver Scott Maxwell. Maxwell has been part of the rover driving team since before the MER rovers lauched. He is publishing the diary he has kept, five years delayed on his Mars and Me blog.

“My take on this is that I know I’m supposed to be sad and I know that at some point I will be really sad, but at the moment it is hard to be sad because that feeling is overwhelmed by the pride of what Spirit accomplished,” Maxwell told Universe Today. “She accomplished an enormous amount in the six years plus that she was active on Mars, and we have every good reason to be proud of her. That is dominating my reaction to this announcement today. It terrible that she’s gone but I’m so proud of her, she did so much, she lived so long and accomplished such great things it’s hard to feel any other way.”

Will Spirit’s official loss put a big hole in Maxwell’s day?

“In terms of my practical day to day operations, not so much,” he said. “My day is filled with taking care of Opportunity and working on the upcoming Mar Science Lab mission, so actually I didn’t have that much to do with Spirit the past year. The way it will affect me is that I won’t be getting the weekly planning schedule for Spirit anymore, so in that way Spirit is going to disappear out of my world.”

Maxwell’s cat died a few months ago he finds he sometimes has an unconscious expectation that the cat will greet him when Maxwell returns home, but then he realizes the cat isn’t there anymore. “That’s the kind of hole that Spirit will leave in my life, where I’ll be unconsciously looking for scheduling emails, or data or information about Spirit, and it is not going to be there, and that place that she has occupied in my life is just not going to be there anymore. I’ve had time to get used to that over the past year, of not actively driving her, so I’ve gone through that transition and I’ll go through this transition next.”

MER PI Steve Squyres. Credit: NASA

Steve Squyres, MER Principal Investigator

“What’s most remarkable to me about Spirit’s mission is just how extensive her accomplishments became,” Squyres said in a JPL press release. “What we initially conceived as a fairly simple geologic experiment on Mars ultimately turned into humanity’s first real overland expedition across another planet. Spirit explored just as we would have, seeing a distant hill, climbing it, and showing us the vista from the summit. And she did it in a way that allowed everyone on Earth to be part of the adventure.”

Squyres said Spirit’s unexpected discovery of concentrated silica deposits was one of the most important findings by either rover.

“It showed that there were once hot springs or steam vents at the Spirit site, which could have provided favorable conditions for microbial life,” he said.

The silica-rich soil was next to a low plateau called Home Plate, which was Spirit’s main destination after the traverse long distances and climbed up and down Husband Hill. “What Spirit showed us at Home Plate was that early Mars could be a violent place, with water and hot rock interacting to make what must have been spectacular volcanic explosions. It was a dramatically different world than the cold, dry Mars of today,” said Squyres.

Chris Potts points to Gusev Crater on Mars on January 4, 2004, after the MER navigation team landed the Spirit rover on Mars with unprecedented accuracy. Photo courtesy of Chris Potts

Chris Potts was the Deputy Navigation Team Chief for both MER rovers.

“My thoughts immediately go back to the night Spirit landed in Gusev Crater on Jan. 3, 2004,” Potts told Universe Today. “It was a nerve wracking evening, thinking about the dangers involved with bringing Spirit from 12,000 mph to a safe landing via menacing bounces inside the airbags. No one could dare imagine that Spirit would continue on to explore Mars for over 6 years. Such an engineering feat requires the best from everyone involved, from the early designers to the operations team that extracted every last bit that Spirit had to offer. Spirit overcame so many obstacles on the journey, that the rover seemed to have a destiny that would not be denied. Spirit has finally reached the inevitable mission end, but I like to imagine the future when space tourists will follow Spirit’s tracks and continue to marvel at what the rover was able to accomplish.”

Doug Ellison, founder of UnmannedSpaceflight.com, where imaging enthusiasts get together to work with data being produced by robotic missions. He started the website, in part, because of the remarkable images being returned by the MER mission.

“I’ve been trying to figure out the words to describe how it feels,” Ellison told Universe Today. “Like losing a family member isn’t that short of the mark. When those early raw JPG’s were put onto their website so quickly I just couldn’t help myself. I found myself making color composites, panoramas, anaglyphs…and that’s what triggered the making of what became UMSF. It’s been a 7 year adventure that’s been shared through more than 125,000 images. We all lived that adventure through those pictures, together.”

Ellison said it is heartbreaking to see Spirit’s part of the mission come to an end. “Mars always had the power to end things, and she did, on her terms and not ours,” he said. “That’s as it should be, Spirit went down fighting in the battle against freezing temperatures on a barren near airless planet. My only regret is that we’ll never truly know exactly what caused Spirit to stay quiet.”

“We think of ‘Spirit’ as that robot on Mars,” he continued. “Without the team of scientists and engineers here on the ground who figured out what to do with that robot, the adventure we’ve been on, together, would never have happened. She’s part of this large team. She’s the teams feet with every drive she made. She’s their eyes with every picture she took. She’s their hands with every rock she studied. And, for many of us, she’s also its heart. The sol-to-sol rhythm of seeing new pictures and planning new adventures was the heartbeat of this large family that wasn’t just the mission personnel at JPL, Cornell and elsewhere – it wasn’t even just Spirit – it was all of us. That family was the thousands and thousands of people who followed along all over the world, it was the robot that did the dirty work, the engineers who kept her safe and the scientists who made the most of her. That family is now one member short – but it still exists. It formed around this little robot called Spirit, and will carry on through other projects.”

“Spirit didn’t die. She just moved on. I feel so very very sorry for the engineers who spent so long designing, building, and then for more than 6 years, using that little robot. But most of all, I feel sorry for Curiosity. As someone at UMSF suggested – that rover’s now sat in the clean room thinking ‘How the heck am I supposed to follow an act like that?'”

Neil Mottinger.

Neil Mottinger from JPL worked on the navigation team for the launch and trajectory of the two spacecraft that brought Spirit and Opportunity to Mars.

“It’s an incredible testimony to engineering that this plucky little craft survived 3 winters, when it wasn’t designed to survive any such weather conditions at all,” Mottinger told Universe Today. “Dust storms didn’t drown its ability to generate electricity thanks to the dust devils that repeatedly cleaned the panels. May its tenacity remind us all to strive for greater goals and push on way beyond the immediate horizons before us.”

Stu Atkinson, member of UMSF, poet and writer penned this poem about the end of Spirit’s mission. You can also read a short story he wrote about a year ago of what could have happened in some households when Spirit died.

MER Project Manager John Callas. Credit: JPL

John Callas has written a letter to his MER team, and in part said, “But let’s remember the adventure we have had. Spirit has climbed mountains, survived rover-killing dust storms, rode out three cold, dark winters and made some of the most spectacular discoveries on Mars. She has told us that Mars was once like Earth. There was water and hot springs, the conditions that could have supported life. She has given us a foundation to further explore the Red Planet and to understand ourselves and our place in the universe.

“But in addition to all the scientific discoveries Spirit has given us in her long, productive rover life, she has also given us a great intangible. Mars is no longer a strange, distant and unknown place. Mars is now our neighborhood. And we all go to work on Mars every day. Thank you, Spirit. Well done, little rover. And to all of you, well done, too.”

We’ll be adding more quotes about Spirit as they come in.

Rover Teams Keeping Spirits Up on Fate of Frozen Mars Rover


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.

The Spirit rover, as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA, image enhanced by Stu Atkinson.

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.

HiRISE Captures Amazing Close-Up of Spirit Rover


The HiRISE team released some new images on Wednesday — one of which was another incredible avalanche image. But then there was another shot of Gusev Crater, the home of the Spirit rover. It was a wide shot of the entire region (you can see it below), and visible are the Columbia Hills, and if you look real close you can see the “Home Plate” region where Spirit sits. Our friend Stu Atkinson took a real close look and found Spirit sitting all alone –but very visible in this wonderfully amazing zoom-in closeup! (Click the image for access to a larger version). Stu also colorized it to show almost intricate detail of Spirit’s solar panels. The image was taken on Feb. 15, 2010, and she looks great! She’s in her current stationary position, and even though this image is from before she went into hibernation, it’s great to know she’s still sitting there, waiting for warmer days. “Hang in there rover, hang in there…” Stu said on Twitter, which echoes all our sentiments. Awww, Spirit….

Thanks to Stu and HiRISE for keeping our hopes alive!

The Spirit rover landing region. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Stu has also written a few of wonderful items about Spirit: A poem called Spirit Shivering, a great story about someone who maybe could travel to Mars and free Spirit, and a great blog post titled, “Spirit, Time to Rest.” Stu is a very talented writer and image editor, so check out his incredible handiwork!

The Spirit Rover’s Big Discovery


Amazingly, the two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been working diligently on the surface of the Red Planet for almost four years now. So far, Opportunity has grabbed most of the spotlight, finding evidence for past water on Mars within months after landing on the smooth plains of Meridiani Planum. While Spirit has been working just as hard, if not harder, climbing hills and traversing the rocky terrain of Gusev Crater, she hasn’t yet caused quite the stir that her twin has. But now, a recent discovery by Spirit at an area called Home Plate has researchers puzzling over a possible habitat for past microbial organisms.

What Spirit found is a patch of nearly pure silica, a main ingredient in window glass.

“This concentration of silica is probably the most significant discovery by Spirit for revealing a habitable niche that existed on Mars in the past,” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the rovers’ science payload.

The silica could have been produced from either a hot-spring type of environment or another type of environment called a fumarole, where acidic steam rises through cracks in the planet’s surface. On Earth, both of these types of environments teem with microbial life.

“The evidence is pointing most strongly toward fumarolic conditions, like you might see in Hawaii and in Iceland,” said Squyres. “Compared with deposits formed at hot springs, we know less about how well fumarolic deposits can preserve microbial fossils. That’s something needing more study here on Earth.”

Squyres said the patch that Spirit has been studying is more than 90 percent silica, and that there aren’t many ways to explain such a high concentration. One way is to selectively remove silica from the native volcanic rocks and concentrate it in the deposits Spirit found. Hot springs can do that, dissolving silica at high heat and then dropping it out of solution as the water cools. Another way is to selectively remove almost everything else and leave the silica behind. Acidic steam at fumaroles can do that. Scientists are still assessing both possible origins.

One reason Squyres favors the fumarole story is that the silica-rich soil on Mars has an enhanced level of titanium. On Earth, titanium levels are relatively high in some fumarolic deposits.

Meanwhile both rovers are hunkering down for another winter season on Mars. Spirit’s solar panels are currently coated with dust from the huge dust storm the rovers endured this summer, and Spirit will need to conserve energy in order to survive the low light levels during the winter.

“The last Martian winter, we didn’t move Spirit for about seven months,” said John Callas, project manager for the rovers. “This time, the rover is likely to be stationary longer and with significantly lower available energy each Martian day.”

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for another solar panel cleaning windstorm event, which has happened previously, giving the rovers a boost in power.

Original News Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory News Release