A Heartfelt Goodbye to a Spirited Mars Rover
Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas sent this letter to his team shortly after the final command was sent to the Mars rover Sprit, which operated on the surface of Mars for more than six years and made numerous scientific discoveries.
Last night, just after midnight, the last recovery command was sent to Spirit. It would be an understatement to say that this was a significant moment. Since the last communication from Spirit on March 22, 2010 (Sol 2210), as she entered her fourth Martian winter, nothing has been heard from her. There is a continued silence from the Gusev site on Mars.
We must remember that we are at this point because we did what we said we would do, to wear the rovers out exploring. For Spirit, we have done that, and then some.
Spirit was designed as a 3-month mission with a kilometer of traverse capability. The rover lasted over 6 years and drove over 7.7 kilometers [4.8 miles] and returned over 124,000 images. Importantly, it is not how long the rover lasted, but how much exploration and discovery Spirit has done.
This is a rover that faced continuous challenges and had to fight for every discovery. Nothing came easy for Spirit. When she landed, she had the Sol 18 flash memory anomaly that threatened her survival. Scientifically, Mars threw a curveball. What was to be a site for lakebed sediments at Gusev, turned out to be a plain of volcanic material as far as the rover eye could see. So Spirit dashed across the plains in an attempt to reach the distant Columbia Hills, believed to be more ancient than the plains.
Exceeding her prime mission duration and odometry, Spirit scrambled up the Columbia Hills, performing Martian mountaineering, something she was never designed to do. There Spirit found her first evidence of water-altered rocks, and later, carbonates.
The environment for Spirit was always harsher than for Opportunity. The winters are deeper and darker. And Gusev is much dustier than Meridiani. Spirit had an ever-increasing accumulation of dust on her arrays. Each winter became harder than the last.
It was after her second Earth year on Mars when Spirit descended down the other side of the Columbia Hills that she experienced the first major failure of the mission, her right-front wheel failed. Spirit had to re-learn to drive with just five wheels, driving mostly backwards dragging her failed wheel. It is out of this failure that Spirit made one of the most significant discoveries of the mission. Out of lemons, Spirit made lemonade.
Each winter was hard for Spirit. But with ever-accumulating dust and the failed wheel that limited the maximum achievable slope, Spirit had no options for surviving the looming fourth winter. So we made a hard push toward some high-value science to the south. But the first path there, up onto Home Plate, was not passable. So we went for Plan B, around to the northeast of Home Plate. That too was not passable and the clock was ticking. We were left with our last choice, the longest and most risky, to head around Home Plate to the west.
It was along this path that Spirit, with her degraded 5-wheel driving, broke through an unseen hazard and became embedded in unconsolidated fine material that trapped the rover. Even this unfortunate event turned into another exciting scientific discovery. We conducted a very ambitious extrication effort, but the extrication on Mars ran out of time with the fourth winter and was further complicated by another wheel failure.
With no favorable tilt and more dust on the arrays, Spirit likely ran out of energy and succumbed to the cold temperatures during the fourth winter. There was a plausible expectation that the rover might survive the cold and wake up in the spring, but a lack of response from the rover after more than 1,200 recovery commands were sent to rouse her indicates that Spirit will sleep forever.
But let’s remember the adventure we have had. Spirit has climbed mountains, survived rover-killing dust storms, rode out three cold, dark winters and made some of the most spectacular discoveries on Mars. She has told us that Mars was once like Earth. There was water and hot springs, the conditions that could have supported life. She has given us a foundation to further explore the Red Planet and to understand ourselves and our place in the universe.
But in addition to all the scientific discoveries Spirit has given us in her long, productive rover life, she has also given us a great intangible. Mars is no longer a strange, distant and unknown place. Mars is now our neighborhood. And we all go to work on Mars every day. Thank you, Spirit. Well done, little rover.
And to all of you, well done, too.