Bar the shuttle there’s only been one mission in recent memory that has managed to capture the attention and imagination of nearly the entire world. That mission is the Mars Exploration Rovers, a pair of plucky little explorers that touched down on Mars almost 7 years ago today beginning a truly epic journey that lasted well past their expected lifetime. They also hold the crown of being conceived, built, launched and spending the better part of a decade on one of our closest neighbours in the universe in the time that it has taken Duke Nukem Forever to be developed. Their impact on the world and our understanding of the universe cannot be understated and it is with a sadden heart that I bring you this news today.
Even though they were, for all intents and purposes, identical twins Spirit always had the hardest time on our red sister. For the first couple years they were both chugging along quite well but in mid March 2006 Spirit’s front right wheel locked up and failed to respond. This meant that for most of its life Spirit was driving around backwards, dragging the dead wheel behind it. It was both a blessing and a curse to the little rover as the dragging meant it could image the crevices it was leaving behind, providing some insight that we weren’t expecting. There was a brief moment of excitement when the wheel began to respond again, but it soon stopped responding shortly after. The rear right wheel also suffered a similar fate several years later.
Then in 2009 Spirit became stuck in a soft patch of Mars soil. At the time it didn’t seem like a big of a deal, they’d been in similar situations before with both rovers and managed to free them successfully, but this one presented some major challenges. The soil was an insidious creation of mostly iron sulfate which has poor cohesion and is like quick sand to the rover’s wheels. NASA then spent 9 months testing various scenarios on earth in a desperate attempt to free the craft before the harsh martian winter before giving up and declaring Spirit a stationary research station.
With the rover stuck in the soil it was unable to orient its solar panels to a favourable angle in order to generate enough electricity to keep its components warm during Mars’ winter. This meant that once that time came it was likely that the rover’s electronics would be subjected to temperatures far below what it was designed to handle, likely killing it in the process. It’s the same problem that faced the Phoenix Lander and the unfortunate truth is that it didn’t survive the winter. Spirit went dark on March 22, 2010 and all attempts to contact it since then have been met silence. This means that the rover is no longer functioning, frozen in its final resting place.
Spirit may no longer be communicating with us but its mission lives on in its twin, Opportunity, and it’s future incarnation in the Mars Science Laboratory called Curiosity. There’s also the very real possibility that SpaceX will be launching a mission to Mars in the near future and that gives us the very real possibility that us humans could be meeting up with our robotic creations much sooner than we think. So while writing this article brought a tear to my eye I know that Spirit won’t be alone in the Martian soil for long and we’ll be seeing it again very soon.
So long Spirit.