In Memoriam: Mars Rover Spirit

She had a career that lasted almost 20 times longer than expected, during which time she helped usher in a new era of understanding between our world and an alien planet.

She’s the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. And today she is officially lost in space.

In a press release issued last night, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the rover’s birthplace—announced that scientists will cease trying to communicate with Spirit, which went silent on March 22, 2010.

The rover had become stuck in a sandy pit in April 2009, and efforts to have her wiggle out failed repeatedly.

In January 2010 mission managers decided they’d have Spirit stay put.

She could still do science, investigating the mineral-rich soil she was trapped in, as well as conducting experiments that benefit from a stationary data collector, such as atmospheric studies and radio probes of Mars’s axial spin.

The trick was that Spirit would first have to survive Martian winter.

“Normally we keep [the rover] warm by having it on,” like a car running its engine on a cold day, rover project manager John Callas said at a January 2010 press briefing.

Previously NASA had parked the rover each winter so that her solar panels pointed north, maximizing power collection during the long months of low sunlight.

Given her limited movement in the pit, however, this time Spirit couldn’t get into an ideal position for hibernation.

With wintertime lows around -45 Celsius (-49 Fahrenheit) on Mars, the team was worried that the rover wouldn’t get enough sunlight to keep powered *and* keep warm.

Sadly, it looks like those worries proved true.

Winter’s over now on Mars, and Spirit should have started chattering if she’d made it through the brutal winter.

But NASA’s been trying for ten months to make contact, to no avail, and today they’ll send the very last official transmission.

“We’re now transitioning assets to support the November launch of our next generation Mars rover, Curiosity,” Dave Lavery, NASA’s program executive for solar system exploration, said in the release.

Don’t forget that Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, is still trucking along on the red planet and is even now headed for a new crater to explore.

Plus, it sounds like Team Spirit isn’t completely giving up hope: “While we no longer believe there is a realistic probability of hearing from Spirit, the Deep Space Network may occasionally listen for any faint signals when the schedule permits.”

Spirit, you’ll be missed:

Click the image to read the full comic.

Changing Planet