PASADENA, Calif. – NASA is ending attempts to regain contact with the long-lived Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, which last communicated on March 22, 2010.
A transmission that will end on Wednesday, May 25, will be the last in a series of attempts. Extensive communications activities during the past 10 months also have explored the possibility that Spirit might reawaken as the solar energy available to it increased after a stressful Martian winter without much sunlight. With inadequate energy to run its survival heaters, the rover likely experienced colder internal temperatures last year than in any of its prior six years on Mars. Many critical components and connections would have been susceptible to damage from the cold.
Engineers’ assessments in recent months have shown a very low probability for recovering communications with Spirit. Communications assets that have been used by the Spirit mission in the past, including NASA’s Deep Space Network of antennas on Earth, plus two NASA Mars orbiters that can relay communications, now are needed to prepare for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission. MSL is scheduled to launch later this year.
“We’re now transitioning assets to support the November launch of our next generation Mars rover, Curiosity,” said 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.”
Spirit landed on Mars on Jan. 3, 2004, for a mission designed to last three months. After accomplishing its prime-mission goals, Spirit worked to accomplish additional objectives. Its twin, Opportunity, continues active exploration of Mars.
The final transmission will happen on Sol 2627 of Spirit’s 90-Sol mission, after she travelled 7,730 meters along the original 600-meter path. The rover lasted 29 times longer than originally expected, and traveled nearly 13 times further than we thought she would. Every extra sol of operations was a bonus of science return that we never really expected.
We are not having a funeral - we will be having a full blown Irish Wake celebration of the successes of this wonderful machine and the enormous science return she provided. The best legacy of this little machine is the inspiration she provided to a whole generation of future explorers who witnessed the unveiling of a planet through the eyes of a robot. The greatest product of the project will be the next mission, the Mars Science Laboratory, which Spirit enabled.
To bring this extraordinary accomplishment into our time frames:
My daughter’s FLL team competed in Mission Mars. They were very inspired by the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers. They participated in the FLL World Festival the first time it was held in Atlanta. Spirit’s mission was supposed to be over about the time CMP was held. Instead, it kept on going through the entire run of CMP’s in Atlanta, and Opportunity has lasted into the St Louis era.
Great job by NASA, JPL and all the others involved.
I understand the amazement in how well it performed. Anytime something lasts that much longer then it was supposed to, that is amazing. Even more so given how complex it must be and that the operating conditions were hardly known. I’m still struggling with the contributions it provided throughout its life. Anyone know what its biggest success was for us other then simply surviving? Not trying to be a downer, I just want to rejoice too.
Spirit’s successes went way beyond those that were established as the original science objectives of the mission. Measured against the original mission success criteria, Spirit’s accomplishments included:
Located and characterized a variety of rocks and soils that held clues to past water activity. In particular, samples found included minerals deposited by water-related processes such as precipitation, evaporation, sedimentary cementation, or hydrothermal activity.
Determined the distribution and composition of minerals, rocks, and soils surrounding the landing sites.
Determined what geologic processes shaped the local terrain and influenced the chemistry. Such processes included water / wind erosion, sedimentation, volcanism, and cratering.
Performed “ground truth” – calibration and validation – of surface observations made by Mars orbiter instruments. This helped determine the accuracy and effectiveness of various instruments that survey Martian geology from orbit.
Searched for iron-containing minerals, and identified and quantified relative amounts of specific mineral types that contained water or were formed in water, such as iron-bearing carbonates.
Characterized the mineralogy and textures of rocks and soils and determine the processes that created them.
Searched for geological clues to the environmental conditions that existed when liquid water was present. Assessed whether those environments were conducive to life.
Beyond the mission success criteria, Spirit drove 7.73 kilometers, more than 12 times the 600-meter goal set for the mission. The drives crossed a plain to reach a distant range of hills that appeared as mere bumps on the horizon from the landing site; climbed slopes up to 30 degrees as Spirit became the first robot to summit a hill on another planet; and covered more than a kilometer after Spirit’s right-front wheel became immobile in 2006. The rover returned more than 124,000 images. It 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. The drill aboard the rover was so well used that the drill bit became completely worn out by mid-way through the mission.
One major finding came, ironically, from dragging the inoperable right-front wheel as the rover was driving backwards in 2007. That wheel plowed up bright white soil. Spirit’s Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer and Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer revealed that the bright material was nearly pure silica. This was one of the most important discoveries by either rover for the entire mission (so far). It showed that there were once hot springs or geothermal activity in the region, which could have been an environment conducive to the formation of microbial life.
Likewise, the data from Spirit’s Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) and Moessbauer Spectrometer showed a high concentration of carbonates. This is further evidence of a wet, non-acidic ancient environment that was very unlike the cold, dry Mars that we know today.
Tis a sad and happy day. Made me think of this…
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Congratulations NASA. Thank you Dave for the great commentary.
As I am now a Data Miner, how much data (in terms of time to analyze it, on average or a ballpark estimate) are there from the two rovers left to look at? What is the nature of this data? Any further elaborations are greatly appreciated.