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10 Years Roving the Red Planet

The twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity were launched toward Mars in the summer of 2003. They arrived months later in spectacular fashion, bouncing down safely on the surface ten years ago.

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The twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity were launched toward

Mars in June and July of 2003. They arrived months later in spectacular fashion,

bouncing down safely on the surface after a harrowing six-minute descent through

the thin atmosphere. Spirit arrived on January 3, 2004, 10 years ago today. Spirit

operated for more than six years after landing for what was planned as a three-month mission.

One of the mission's main scientific goals was to search for and study a wide range

of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. To do this, the

rovers landed on opposite sides of Mars in locations that appear to have been

affected by liquid water in the past.

The goal of the rover was to travel at least 600 meters (0.37 mile) during a primary

mission of 90 Martian days. Both rovers far exceeded these expectations. Spirit

drove 4.8 miles (7.73 kilometers), more than 12 times the goal set for the mission.

The drives crossed a plain to reach a distant range of hills that appeared as mere

bumps on the horizon from the landing site; climbed slopes up to 30 degrees as

Spirit became the first robot to summit a hill on another planet; and covered more

than half a mile (nearly a kilometer) after Spirit's right-front wheel became immobile

in 2006. The rover returned more than 124,000 images. It ground the surfaces off 15

rock targets and scoured 92 targets with a brush to prepare the targets for

inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager.

Here are a few highlights from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit roving the Red


Cutting the Cord & Getting Ready to Roll

Spirit turned 95 degrees clockwise in the first and second steps in a 3-point turn that rotated the rover 115 degrees to face west from its landing position. The rover had to make this turn before rolling off the lander because airbags were blocking it from exiting off the front lander petal. Before starting this maneuver, engineers instructed the rover to cut the final cord linking it to the lander.

Postcard from the Red Planet

This color “postcard from Mars,” taken on Sol 5 by the panoramic camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, looks to the north. The apparent slope of the horizon is due to the several degree tilt of the lander deck. On the left, the circular topographic feature dubbed Sleepy Hollow can be seen along with dark markings that may be surface disturbances caused by the airbag-encased lander as it bounced and rolled to rest. A dust-coated airbag is prominent in the foreground, and a dune-like feature that piqued the interest of the science team with its dark, possibly armored top coating, can be seen on the right.

Rover Takes a Sunday Drive

This image shows the rover’s perspective of its first post-egress drive on Mars. Engineers drove Spirit approximately 3 meters (10 feet) toward its first rock target, a football-sized, mountain-shaped rock called Adirondack. The drive took approximately 30 minutes to complete, including time stopped to take images. Spirit first made a series of arcing turns totaling approximately 1 meter (3 feet). It then turned in place and made a series of short, straightforward movements totaling approximately 2 meters (6.5 feet).

Rolling On The Rocky Road

Spirit is seen roving during an approximately 21.2-meter (69.6-foot) drive across the pebbly ground at Gusev Crater, Mars, on the 37th day, or sol, of its mission (Feb. 9, 2004) in these images captured by the rover’s front hazard-avoidance camera after it began the autonomous portion of its drive.

The Call of the Dark Rocks

Spirit took this image of a group of darker rocks dubbed “Toltecs,” lying to the southeast of the rover’s position. The rocks are believed to be basaltic, or volcanic, in composition because their color and spectral properties resemble those of basaltic rocks studied so far at Gusev Crater. Scientists hope to use these presumably unaltered rocks as a geologic standard for comparison to altered rocks in the area, such as “Clovis.” This image merges exposures taken through the 750-, 530- and 430-nanometer filters of rover’s panoramic camera on sol 220 (August 15, 2004).

Extend Your Arm & Work It

Spirit moved its robotic arm, called the instrument deployment device, to take a series of images with the rover’s microscopic imager during the rover’s 469th Martian day, or sol (April 28, 2005). The arm’s carefully planned motions positioned the microscopic imager to take an array of 24 images of this rock target, dubbed “Keystone,” at an outcrop called “Methuselah.” The microscopic imager frames were combined into a mosaic view showing the finely laminated texture of the rock, seen below:

Sunset from the Martian Surface

On May 19, 2005, Spirit captured this stunning view as the sun sank below the rim of Gusev Crater on Mars. This Panoramic Camera (Pancam) mosaic was taken around 6:07 in the evening of the rover’s 489th Martian day, or sol. Spirit was commanded to stay awake briefly after sending that sol’s data to the Mars Odyssey orbiter just before sunset. This small panorama of the western sky was obtained using Pancam’s 750-nanometer, 530-nanometer and 430-nanometer color filters. This filter combination allows false color images to be generated that are similar to what a human would see, but with the colors slightly exaggerated. In this image, the bluish glow in the sky above the sun would be visible to us if we were there, but an artifact of the Pancam’s infrared imaging capabilities is that with this filter combination the redness of the sky farther from the sunset is exaggerated compared to the daytime colors of the Martian sky. Because Mars is farther from the sun than the Earth is, the sun appears only about two-thirds the size that it appears in a sunset seen from the Earth. The terrain in the foreground is the rock outcrop “Jibsheet,” a feature that Spirit has been investigating for several weeks (rover tracks are dimly visible leading up to “Jibsheet”). The floor of Gusev Crater is visible in the distance, and the sun is setting behind the wall of Gusev some 80 km (50 miles) in the distance.

Dust Devils

Several dust devils moving from right to left across a plain inside Mars’ Gusev Crater are seen by Spirit in hills rising from the plain. Taken during the rover’s 543rd Martian day, or sol (July 13, 2005), the images in this clip have not been processed to enhance contrast of the dust devils. The total time elapsed during the taking of these frames was 12 minutes, 17 seconds. Spirit began seeing dust devil activity around the beginning of Mars’ spring season. Activity increased as spring continued, but fell off again for about two weeks during a dust storm. As the dust storm faded away, dust devil activity came back. In the mid-afternoons as the summer solstice approached, dust devils were a very common occurrence on the floor of Gusev Crater. The early-spring dust devils tended to move southwest-to-northeast, across the dust devil streaks in Gusev seen from orbit. Increasingly as the season progresses, the dust devils are seen moving northwest-to-southeast, in the same direction as the streaks. Scientists used Spirit to watch for the big dust devils that leave those streaks.


Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, Spirit settled in for an evening of stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky in the evening of Martian day, or sol, 590 (Aug. 30, 2005). In this view, the Pleiades, a star cluster also known as the “Seven Sisters,” is visible in the lower left corner. The bright star Aldebaran and some of the stars in the constellation Taurus are visible on the right.

Spirit Says Goodbye to 'Home Plate'

Spirit examined spectacular layered rocks exposed at “Home Plate.” The rover drove around the northern and eastern edges of Home Plate, on the way to “McCool Hill.” Before departing, Spirit took this image showing some of the most complex layering patterns seen at this location.

Rover's Wheel Churns Up Bright Martian Soil

Spirit acquired this mosaic on the mission’s 1,202nd Martian day, or sol (May 21, 2007), while investigating the area east of the elevated plateau known as “Home Plate” in the “Columbia Hills.” The mosaic shows an area of disturbed soil, nicknamed “Gertrude Weise” by scientists, made by Spirit’s stuck right front wheel.

Spirit Triumphs on Mars

View this video on YouTube