NASA’s “Opportunity” — Now a Human Technology Artifact Abandoned on Mars

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In this Jan. 28, 2004 photo provided by NASA/JPL of a photo shot by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. NASA is ending efforts to revive the sand-trapped rover Spirit, which has been silent for more than a year most likely silenced by the severe Martian winter that damaged its electronics, preventing the six-wheel rover from springing back to life. Project manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the last commands will be sent up Wednesday, May 25.


Although orbiting spacecraft will continue to listen through the end of May, chances are slim that Spirit will respond. "Spirit went into a deep sleep," said Callas, who said the plucky rover will be remembered for popularizing Mars to the masses.  Soon after landing, Spirit went into critical condition and sent nonsense data back to Earth, until NASA engineers nursed it back from the brink of death.

The solar-powered Spirit and its twin Opportunity parachuted to opposite ends of the Martian southern hemisphere in January 2004 for what was supposed to be a three-month mission, uncovering in the process geological evidence that Mars, now dry and dusty, was far more tropical billions of years ago. The red planet was warmer and wetter, conditions that suggest the ancient environment could have been favorable for microbial life.

Unlike Opportunity, which landed in an ancient lakebed awash with water-forming minerals, Spirit landed in a massive crater named Gusev that contained limited hints of past water. In 2005, Spirit scaled a mountain the height of the Statute of Liberty. It also was the first to record Martian dust devils as they formed, which NASA later made into movie shorts.

The troubles began in April 2009 when Spirit broke through crusty ground while driving backward and became bogged in a sand pit. During attempts to get it unstuck, one of the back wheels stopped working — essentially turning Spirit into a four-wheel drive. NASA declared an end to Spirit's mobile career in January 2010 — six years after landing — and it became a stationary spacecraft.

The woes continued when engineers failed in efforts to tilt Spirit's solar panels in a favorable position toward the low winter sun. With no way to power its heaters to stay warm, Spirit went into hibernation, its internal temperature plunging to minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit — the coldest it has experienced on the red planet.

A formal farewell is planned at NASA headquarters after the Memorial Day holiday and will be televised on NASA TV.

Spirit trekked 4.8 miles since landing, while its twin Opportunity has logged 18.5 miles so far and explored into three craters. Opportunity has been trekking toward a large crater named Endeavour. It is currently less than 3 miles away, and if all goes as planned it should reach the rim later this year.

Spirit is the second Mars spacecraft in three years to stop working. In 2008, NASA bid adieu to the Phoenix lander after five months of studying a Martian arctic plain.

Opportunity could soon get some company on the Martian surface. NASA later this year is expected to launch a megarover the size of a Mini Cooper that will land at a still-to-be-determined spot on Mars in summer 2012.

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 Daily Galaxy via NASA/JPL

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