Sunday, June 05, 2011

NASA’s Spirit sits silent on Mars

The Mars rover showed more pluck than even NASA thought possible, exploring the planet more extensively and for far longer than expected. Somehow, the rover’s advanced technology gave it something like gusto; even after it got hopelessly stuck two years ago, Spirit sent back data of interest from the dust and rocks where it sat.

Gusev Crater, where the rover landed Jan. 4, 2004 — and roamed for five years among features with names like McCool Hill, Low Ridge Haven and Goddard — is Spirit’s gravesite now. NASA, in a sense, pulled the plug several days ago. It hadn’t been heard from since March 2010, so engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California sent a last command, and gave up.

It’s a fond farewell. Spirit proved its mettle on Mars time and again, earning gratitude and admiration back home. Geological evidence, gathered via a robotic arm and other gizmos, spoke to scientists of a planet that seems to have had water and might once have supported life. And the rover sent back images nothing short of stunning: of the Gusev Crater’s rubble-strewn volcanic plain, and also the distant Earth, the sun setting low on a Martian horizon.

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