Mars Rover Status – Spirit and Opportunity
Sadly, NASA announced yesterday that it has ended operational planning activities for the Mars Rover named Spirit. The last time that Spirit communicated with Earth was on March 22, 2010 – over one year ago. As Mars was heading into winter, Spirit became immobile and NASA was unable to adjust the tilt of Spirit’s solar panels to optimize the angle to capture the maximum amount of solar energy to keep the craft powered up.
As a result, NASA was unable to re-awaken the spacecraft after the long Martian winter. In an amazing feat of endurance, this small craft operated for over six years and traveled over 4.8 miles (7.73 kilometers) across the Martian surface. What makes it remarkable is that Spirit and Opportunity were only designed to function for 90 days.
Spirit arrived on Mars in January of 2004. The sturdy Rover climbed hills that were as steep as 30 degrees. It became the first robot to reach the top of a hill on another planet under it’s own power. While it was operational on Mars, the Rover returned over 124,000 images and ground the surface off of 15 rocks so that spectrometers could inspect the clean surfaces. It did all of this with a damaged front wheel that became inoperable in 2006 forcing it to drive backwards.
One of Spirit’s most important findings was the discovery of pure silica on the Martian surface. Pure silica indicates that there were once hot springs or steam vents which could have supported microbial life.
On a bright note, Opportunity is still functioning! It has been busy exploring the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. Check out this image from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter below. It was taken on March 9, 2011 and shows the Rover perched on the lip of the “Santa Maria” crater.