It seems like just yesterday when NASA landed its twin robotic rovers on Mars, but in reality we've been exploring the surface of the red planet for ten years now. The findings of the NASA's two robotic rovers - Spirit and Opportunity - changed the way we looked at Mars.
Spirit and its twin Opportunity stand at 1.5 meters high, 2.3 meters wide, and 1.6 meters long. Both weigh 400 lbs and have the same six wheel design that enhanced both robots ability to move over difficult terrain. The rovers maximum speed is 5 cm/sec, and both units use pieces from the World Trade Center as shielding for some of the robot’s more sensitive components.
The Spirit rover landed on Mars at the site designated Columbia Station on January 4, 2004, beating its sister rover Opportunity by a full three weeks. Spirit’s mission was simple; find evidence of water. According to NASA, Spirit traveled nearly five miles over slopes and into plains where its precise instruments ground the surfaces off rocks and surveyed over 90 targets with a brush, which prepared the rocks for further examination by the Rover’s various high tech instruments such as x-ray spectrometer and the mircroscopic Imager. The Spirit rover also took 124,000 images with its panoramic and navigation cameras that have proven quite useful in our understanding of the Martian surface.
Perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries was the rocks and minerals that had been altered by small amounts of water in the Columbia Hills. The Hills, named after the Astronauts who died in the Shuttle Columbia disaster, are located inside the Gusev crater 1.9 miles from where the Spirit rover touched down. The Hills were of special interest to NASA scientists because the rocks in the area appeared to have been enriched by elements that might have come from water. Upon closer inspection by the rover the hypothesis was confirmed.
One of Spirit’s six wheels got stuck in soft soil on May 1, 2009, and the robot was unable to move any further. This did not stop its experiments as the rover continued its work as a stationary base until it stopped communicating with NASA on March 22, 2010. Efforts to re-establish communication were ended in May of the next year.
Spirit was the second longest operating visitor on the surface of Mars operation for 2208 sols, beating out the previous record held by the Viking 2 lander by a period of one “sol.” For the sake of uniform timekeeping NASA used the solar day length. A Martian solar day is 24h and 39 minutes and 35.24409 seconds making it 2.7% longer than a standard Earth solar day of 24h, 0 minutes and 00.002 seconds. The Viking 1 still holds the record of 6 years, 3 months and 22 days of operational time on Mars.
Mankind has achieved much with the rover program in terms of learning more about the possibility of water, and the planets weather and climate past and present. But do not think that our robotic explorations of the red planet are coming to an end anytime time soon Opportunity is still active and still searching for signs of water and life while continuing to provide NASA key data about Mars that will hopefully one day assist a manned mission. We still have much to learn about Mars but thankfully we have developed the kind of robotic systems that will continue to explore and experiment the mysteries of the Martian surface.