February 1, 2010
by Mark Ollig
The evening of Saturday Jan. 3, 2004, yours truly was logged into the NASA TV web site intently watching and listening to the latest reports from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
NASA was broadcasting live video and audio feeds over the Internet as the robotic exploration vehicle called “Spirit” was rapidly approaching the planet Mars.
Spirit was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida June 10, 2003.
I listened to the dialogue and watched the NASA personel in the JPL mission control room as they reported on Spirit’s progress as it descended toward the Martian surface.
Spirit was one of two rovers (the other being name “Opportunity”) NASA sent to Mars.
Opportunity would later reach the Martian surface Jan. 24, 2004.
Both rovers would have the ability to move around the planet on six wheels and conduct various experiments using a robotic arm.
The names “Spirit” and “Opportunity” were chosen out of almost 10,000 student essays which NASA had arranged a contest for.
Spirit made the seven-month trip to Mars inside a “folded up lander” vehicle containing airbags and parachutes encased in a protective aeroshell capsule.
Getting back to Jan. 3, 2004, JPL was reporting the lander penetrating the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour. I recall listening as JPL said the heat-shield was deflecting away the extreme high temperatures caused by the atmospheric friction.
At this time, I was just hoping the thing wouldn’t burn up in the atmosphere.
During the next four minutes, its speed was cut by some 90 percent while Spirit entered the Martian atmosphere.
The parachute fastened to the back side of Spirit’s protective aeroshell opened at approximately two minutes before landing.
The lander’s retro and transverse rockets were fired in co-ordination with each other to reduce its speed.
The parachute cords were released and the lander – now protecting the rover Spirit – was freed from the aeroshell encasement and was falling toward the ground.
As the lander containing Spirit was falling, a camera pointed downward and took three pictures during the final 30 seconds of its descent.
The onboard computer instantaneously evaluated the pictures to determine the lander’s horizontal motion.
During the final eight seconds before reaching the surface, airbags surrounding the lander to cushion it upon impact were instantly inflated by onboard gas generators.
In what looked like an assortment of closely connected round balloons as it was falling, Spirit itself was being protected from impact inside of the now inflated airbags-encased lander.
NASA was getting all the telemetry, and the next report would confirm if Spirit had made the landing successfully.
Success. The information coming back to NASA at the JPL verified the Mars rover Spirit had successfully landed on the surface of the planet Mars.
The lander actually bounced 27 times after it first hit the surface – tumbling some 300 yards until it came to a stop at the Gusev Crater on Mars.
The airbags surrounding the lander containing the rover were then deflated.
Spirit had traveled 303 million miles and was only six miles away from its primary landing target, according to JPL engineers.
After the initial tests were completed; Spirit was confirmed to be fully operational.
The robotic rover was then sent commands from Earth to move itself off the landing pad.
Jan. 15, 2004, Spirit, using its six wheels, drove itself off the landing pad – much like a radio remote-controlled toy car – and onto the reddish soil of the planet Mars.
Spirit’s appearance reminds me of the robot “WALL-E” from the Disney movie.
Sadly, 10 months ago, after having journeyed more than 4.7 miles across the surface of Mars, Spirit became stuck while traveling beside the western edge of a low plateau called Home Plate.
Spirit’s wheels had broken through the weakened surface and merged into the soft sand concealed underneath.
NASA engineers tried, but recently announced they could not free Spirit.
“We told the world last year that attempts to set the beloved robot free may not be successful. It looks like Spirit’s current location on Mars will be its final resting place.” Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington said.
Although Spirit is now in a motionless state, as long as it can survive the Martian winter and charge its solar panels in order to power its rechargeable lithium ion batteries, Spirit will be able to continue its scientific research – albeit from a stationary position.
“There’s a class of science we can do only with a stationary vehicle that we had put off during the years of driving,” said Steve Squyres, a researcher at Cornell University and primary investigator for Spirit and Opportunity.
Meanwhile, Spirit’s sister rover, Opportunity, is presently traveling toward a huge crater called Endeavor, all while continuing to operate efficiently, according to NASA.
NASA originally designed both rovers to last for 90 days.