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The Surprisingly Long, Wonderful Life of the Mars Spirit Rover (2004 - 2011)

After 2695 of our earth days on the surface of Mars, NASA's Spirit rover has been given the metaphorical golden watch, farewell speech and "way to go buddy" pats on the back that mark "the end":

After 2695 of our earth days on the surface of Mars, NASA’s Spirit rover has been given the metaphorical golden watch, farewell speech and “way to go buddy” pats on the back that mark the end of many a working life.

NASA hasn’t heard from the Spirit rover since March 22, 2010 when it became ensnared in martian quicksand. Attempts to re-establish contact have officially ceased. Spirit is survived by Opportunity, its sister rover, which is presently nearing Mars’ Endeavour crater. To honor the career of one of our favorite space machines, Motherboard takes a fond look back over Spirits’ stunningly successful career.


Stealing a march

Seizing the initiative, Spirit blasts off aboard a Delta II 7925 launch vehicle from Space Launch Complex 17A at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida – arriving a full three weeks before its sister rover, Opportunity. After touching down bang in the middle of the Gusev crater, Spirit snaps a few pictures to help its superiors choose a promising nearby destination, a crater dubbed “Sleepy Hollow”. An allusion to Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” as well as the hollow where Spirit slept before roaming Mars.

Burn out

Before Opportunity even arrives at work, Spirit rolls off its landing platform and knuckles down – taking the highest resolution image ever captured on the surface of another planet (below). But the stress and workload soon takes its toll – with Spirit refusing to go into sleep mode and just fucking chilling out a bit. The command team even reportedly sent it the command SHUTDWN_DMT_TIL (“Shutdown Dammit Until” followed by the time the rover should wake up) in desperation, but to no avail.

Back in action

Following a few software fixes, Spirit’s work/life balance is back in harmony and the science begins in earnest. The rover soon bags more Martian firsts, including the first intentional grinding of a rock on Mars. After the small matter of photographing a rock bearing evidence of water, Spirit gets a power boost as Martian dust devils sweep its solar panels clean. For good measure, Spirit photographs these too.

Sunset on Mars

Intentional rock grinding, finding evidence of water and photographing dust devils are more than most probes hope to achieve in a lifetime, but not Spirit. Just ten days later, it captures one of the most beautiful images ever taken by man or machine: the distant sun setting over Gustev crater. Click here for the high res or here for a mock-up showing Spirit on the scene.


I’m fine, really

In March 2006, Spirit’s front wheel stops working, but the little rover struggles on – now driving backwards and dragging its broken wheel behind. Like any good employee, it turns crisis into opportunity and uses its bad wheel to uncover a patch of ground that would have been perfect for ancient microbial life: a finding dubbed one of the most important discoveries on the surface of Mars. Spirit soon follows this with the actual discovery of life on the red planet.

The beginning of the end

On the first of May 2009, Spirit gets stuck in soft terrain – your typical “iron(III) sulfate hidden under a veneer of normal-looking soil” situation. Despite the rover’s past performance, managers demote it to the role of “stationary research platform” in January 2010 – a bitter insult that puts the six-wheeled robot on par with the likes of the immobile Viking and Phoenix landers. By March, Spirit had stopped talking to NASA altogether and yesterday, following a year of frantic calls, the agency finally gave up on hearing from Spirit – almost.

“We’re now transitioning assets to support the November launch of our next generation Mars rover, Curiosity,” explains Dave Lavery, NASA's program executive for solar system exploration. “However, while we no longer believe there is a realistic probability of hearing from Spirit, the Deep Space Network may occasionally listen for any faint signals when the schedule permits.”

Rest easy, old friend. You’ve earned it.

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