Spirit-ed Away – The Last Voyage of the Mars Rover

Spirit roverLast week NASA celebrated the legacy of a spirit, though one that’s mechanical. In May 2011 the space organization sent its final transmission to Spirit, a rover stuck on that inhospitable red planet known as Mars. NASA first experienced problems with Spirit since April 2009 when the rover got stuck in sand beneath Mars’ crust. Spirit was engineered with solar panels that provide the rover with energy, but with Spirit’s untimely fall those solar panels were pointed away from the sun. On top of that the Martian winter slowly approached and NASA soon lost contact with its prized machine.

NASA has tried everything to reach Spirit, utilizing Deep Space Network antennas and Mars orbiters, but eventually decided that attempting communication was futile and that it was time to retire the hardworking rover.

While losing contact with Rover has been a dour moment for NASA, the organization highlights all of the accomplishments Rover has achieved and the scientific breakthroughs made in understanding the red planet’s aquatic properties. John Callas, Exploration Rover project manager, notes that the Rover (accidentally) contributed to the “evidence of ancient hot springs.” Spirit’s right wheel malfunctioned in 2006, two years after arriving on Mars’ surface, and while dragging the wheel into the ground “revealed deposits of amorphous silica widely thought to have formed in hydro-thermal systems. Apparently, Mars once had water and the energy to warm it.”

Callas also notes that the Spirit provided “evidence of a thick atmosphere and ‘sweet water.’” Mars is known for having a thin atmosphere that prevents the growth of life, but Spirit found evidence of carbonates. Callas states that “the carbonates Spirit found formed in surface water that could only exist with a thick atmosphere sitting on top of it to prevent rapid evaporation. Moreover, the chemistry of the carbonates tells us that the water wasn’t acidic like other ancient water on Mars.” In other words, billions of years ago the possibility of life was not as remote as it appears now.

Finally, the Spirit provided “evidence of an active water cycle.” After Spirit’s tumble into the soft sand, its wheels dug up sulfates in the soil. “These minerals appear to have come in contact with water perhaps as recently as a million years ago,” says Callas. A million years is certainly a long time, but is quite recent in geological terms, so this evidence supports the theory that Mars has an active water cycle.

While Spirit is no longer sending us transmissions about its adventures on the Red Planet, its legacy lives on at NASA headquarters. The data uncovered by the plucky rover will be pored over by scientists for years, possibly leading to even bigger breakthroughs to come.