Despite NASA’s best efforts to wake her, Mars Exploration Rover Spirit remains silent on the Red Planet’s surface. It’s been a whole year since we last heard from the little wheeled robot and hope has all but faded for her revival.
For the next month, NASA will continue to listen out for Spirit, but after that time search operations will be scaled back to focus on sister rover Opportunity. Opportunity continues her marathon drive to Endeavour Crater, over seven years since she landed on Mars.
Spirit became stuck in a sand trap in Gusev crater in 2009 and an epic mission began to try to dislodge the rover’s buried wheels from the trap, aptly named “Troy.” Despite the combined efforts of rover drivers, scientists and engineers, the wheels kept spinning in the loose Martian soil.
For a time, Spirit was able to do some valuable science despite her stationary predicament. Indeed, Mars rover driver Scott Maxwell said, “This has been very much like your car breaking down right next to Disney Land,” in a 2009 “Free Spirit Update”, when commenting on the amazing science that could still be carried out where Spirit stood. However, this didn’t last for long as she couldn’t adjust her position to face the sun as the Martian winter crept in.
As the Martian nights drew shorter, and the sunlight barely reached Spirit’s solar panels, by March 2010 her batteries drained and she dropped into a self-preservation hibernation state. Communications with Earth and other activities were suspended and any remaining energy was utilized in keeping the batteries warm and mission clock ticking.
NASA has repeatedly tried to revive the rover, but after months of flyovers by Mars satellites, there’s been no signal from Spirit. It’s looking as if she has succumbed to a lack of energy and freezing temperatures.
In light of this bad news, today Scott Maxwell remarked:
If this is indeed the end of the road for Spirit, it is a sad time for Mars exploration. But it’s only sad because that little rover has become synonymous with the Martian landscape, epitomizing the spirit of planetary exploration.
Image: This synthetic image of the Spirit Mars Exploration Rover on top of a rock called “Jibsheet” was produced using “Virtual Presence in Space” technology. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell