01/21 – The Spirit Rover Almost Kills Itself

A panorama taken by Spirit on Mars. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 2004, the Spirit Rover – or, MER-A (Mars Exploration Rover-A) – lost contact with NASA headquarters while performing an exploratory mission on Mars. 17 sols (Martian days) into its journey – which had begun in late 2003 – Spirit suddenly stopped communicating. Initially, NASA scientists believed Spirit had put itself into reboot mode, which threatened to run down the rover’s battery and kill the mission; in response, the team sent the command “SHUTDWN_DMT_TIL” (shutdown, dammit, until) to prevent the robot from effectively committing suicide. Spirit ignored the command, but a few days later, NASA figured out that the rover simply had too many files stores in its flash memory. The team on earth remotely deleted a number of files, and by February 6th, Spirit was back in action.

The Spirit rover on Mars. This photo, taken by the rover, had Spirit added in by NASA to give a sense of scale to the image. (Wikimedia Commons)

Spirit was not the first human-made lander to operate on Mars, but it was one of the most successful. Comparable in size to a large, elongated wheelchair and weighing roughly 400 lbs (185 kg), Spirit was designed to designed to roll around Mars collecting sample and taking pictures – a scientifically-advanced tourist, if you will. Intended to last for 90 sols (92 earth days), Spirit ended up staying on the red planet and sending back useful data until 2010. At that point, the rover shut down, but not before sending back huge amounts of useful data to the NASA team on earth. Among other discoveries, Spirit found that Mars was a lot wetter – and therefore, more able to sustain life – than previously imagined.

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