Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Godspeed, Spirit

NASA announced today that at the end of May it will cease transmissions to Spirit, the Mars rover that has been silent for over a year.

Spirit and it's sister rover Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 for what was supposed to be a three month mission.  Thanks to amazing engineering and some creative problem solving by NASA, Opportunity is still moving around the surface of Mars. And Spirit had logged six years of service before it stopped communicating.  Again, these machines were supposed to last three months.

Spirit got stuck in a sand pit in April of 2009.  Unable to move it, NASA declared it's mobile mission over and it became a stationary data collector in 2010.  When NASA was unable to maneuver Spirit's solar panels to best collect the rays of the low winter sun, it's heaters were unable to operate, it's internal temperature dropped to negative 69 degrees Fahrenheit and NASA lost contact.   They decided this week that continuing to send pings to the rover would cut into the resources they could use for other missions.

Spirit seemed to be the epitome of "never give up".  When Spirit first landed it suffered some damage and transmitted nonsense data back to NASA.  NASA engineers were able to nurse it back to health while it was on Mars and it continued it's mission for six years.  It climbed out of the crater it landed in, went on to scale a Martian mountain the size of the Statue of Liberty and it beamed back images of  the first recorded dust devils on Mars.

The rovers piqued our collective imagination.  People talk about them like they have personalities, with MSNBC calling Opportunity an "over-achiever" and Spirit a "drama queen".  They seemed scrappy and adventurous, good ol' American heroes living up to their names.  We love them, and many of us will mourn the loss of Spirit.

My kids are sad.  We've seen documentaries and have read books about the rovers.  Nate is especially fond of them and loved to relate their amazing story to his friends. The rovers got him interested in robotics and he built a robot for his science fair project this year.  Upon learning of Spirit's fate, he got teary eyed and said that he felt as if he was "losing my robot friend". I thought I had this grief thing down, but I don't really know how to counsel a child on the loss of a beloved robot.  I guess like anything, time will make it easier.


From xkcd


Godspeed, Spirit.

NASA's press release: NASA Concludes Attempts to Contact Mars Rover Spirit.

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