Spirit lands on Mars

SpiritThe first of two new American Mars rovers lands successfully on the red planet. The Mars rover Spirit enters the Martian atmosphere (and cleaves a path right through a dust storm), deploying thick layers of airbags that allow it to bounce safely until landing upright. This is the same landing system employed by the Pathfinder mission in 1997, but the unmanned robot probe in this case is much more sophisticated. Among the primary scientific objectives of Spirit’s mission is to determine if water existed on the surface of Mars for a significant length of time. The Spirit rover will undergo a series of diagnostics and won’t begin its mobile mission for several days. Its identical twin, a rover named Opportunity, will land in three weeks.

Spirit’s murky memory

SpiritJPL engineers begin experiencing severe difficulty communicating with the Spirit Mars rover, which had successfully rolled off of its landing platform the previous week. Just as the rover is ready to begin its travels on the surface of Mars, it stops communicating with Earth, or with any orbiting spacecraft overhead. A command is transmitted to force Spirit to report its condition, and the resulting telemetry indicates that the rover has been continuously rebooting its internal computer system. By the weekend, after worries and warnings that Spirit would probably never regain 100% functionality, JPL’s engineers re-establish communications and received enough diagnostic information to narrow the problem down to Spirit’s flash memory and handling software. Engineers soon resolve the problem, transmitting instructions to work around the potentially corrupted memory, and restoring Spirit so it can continue its exploration.

Opportunity lands on Mars

OpportunityThe Opportunity rover, identical to Spirit, lands on schedule and on target in Mars’ Meridiani Planum region, but initial readings from the surface of Mars indicate that the landing pod containing Opportunity has come to rest on its side. Telemetry signals from Opportunity announce that the the rover has arrived safely and intact, ready to begin its mission, and the opening of the landing vehicle returns Opportunity to its intended upright position. As with Spirit, Opportunity will remain on its landing platform for several days undergoing a series of diagnostic tests before rolling off to the Martian surface for independent exploration, and engineers are keeping a close eye out for signs of a computer problem that has plagued Spirit for several days.

Not just water, but salt water, on Mars

MarsNASA scientists unveil new findings from the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. While both rovers have found evidence of water erosion in rocks at their respective landing sites, the scientists now say that Opportunity’s landing site – a large crater – features rocks which show conclusive evidence of a large body of salt water, not unlike Earth’s oceans. While no definitive signs of life have been found by Opportunity or its identical twin, these findings continue to add up to a picture of Mars as a place where life once could have thrived.

Mars Rovers’ mission extended

OpportunityNASA announces that the Spirit rover has exceeded its mission goals of 90 continuous Martian days of operation since landing, with over 600 meters of the Martian surface covered. NASA applies for, and receives approval on, a plan to keep Spirit and Opportunity roving through September, almost tripling the rovers’ planned life span. The extended mission, made possible by a budget boost of $15 million, will give engineers the chance to try handing control over to the Rovers’ built-in systems, and it’ll afford a greater opportunity to examine the unusual rocks and evidence of past bodies of water on the Martian surface.

Spirit’s sticky situation

SpiritNASA’s Spirit Mars rover becomes stuck in an area of soft, dusty soil in which its wheels can no longer gain traction. Efforts to simulate the problem on Earth begin, as well as studies to see if Spirit can free itself, but attempts to wiggle or rotate the rover’s wheels on Mars produce no results (and eventually wear out the independent motor of another of its wheels). The attempts to free Spirit from its Martian sandtrap continue through early 2010.

Spirit signs off

SpiritNASA’s Spirit Mars rover makes its last contact with ground controllers on Earth. With the Martian winter fast approaching, and the rover’s wheels leaving it stuck in an unfavorable position to keep its solar panels angled toward the sun, Spirit gradually loses power until it shuts off, its mission having lasted nearly seven and a half years – almost 30 times its original design and mission lifespan of 90 days. Spirit’s ground controllers are reassigned to either Opportunity (which is still mobile and operating) or the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission.