Spirit, the first of NASA’s two solar-powered Mars Exploration rovers, touched down on Mars in 2004. Differing from its later counterparts, Spirit utilized airbags for a softer landing on the surface. Its entry into the thin atmosphere involved a sequence of events, including parachutes deployment, heat-shield ejection, and the spacecraft’s tumbling and bouncing, all safely cushioned.
The intense moments surrounding Spirit’s landing are well-documented in the book “Roving Mars” by Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the science payload on the Mars Exploration Rovers and currently the Chief Scientist at Blue Origin.
Originally designed for a 90-sol mission (just over 92 Earth days), Spirit exceeded expectations and survived for an impressive 2,208 sols, with its last contact on March 22, 2010.
Spirit functioned as a robotic geologist, tasked with identifying evidence of water activity and aiding scientists in understanding the geological processes shaping Mars’ surface. Equipped with cameras, navigation optics, and a robotic arm with tools like a microscopic imager, spectrometers, and the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT), Spirit played a crucial role in Mars exploration.
The rover’s computer, described as “comparable to a high-end, powerful laptop computer,” had 128 MB of DRAM with error detection and correction and 3 MB of EEPROM. Although basic by today’s standards, it was considerably advanced compared to earlier Mars missions, such as the Sojourner rover.
Spirit faced challenges from the beginning, surviving a near-death experience on Earth and encountering serious issues soon after landing on Mars. Engineers successfully addressed the initial problem of constant rebooting and crashing, which threatened the power system’s integrity.
Despite subsequent hardware failures, including a failed front wheel, Spirit continued its extended mission. The rover’s last challenge came in 2009 when it became stuck in soft sand, prompting NASA to declare it a ‘stationary research platform.’ Spirit’s final communication occurred on March 22, 2010, and NASA officially ended communication attempts on May 25, 2011. While Spirit met its end, its twin, Opportunity, continued operations, and a new rover, Curiosity, was launched in November 2011.