People rarely think of space missions as objects of affection, and yet somehow, the world looked at the two Mars mission rovers with an incredible sense of endearment.
Spirit and Opportunity were only designed to operate for 90 days or so, but as time passed and they kept supplying more information, these little rovers became the most popular of all space missions.
When NASA wanted to name these two rovers, they held a contest that all of the schoolkids in the U.S. could enter.
This not only involved the kids, but got them familiar with the images and information about the rovers.
A little girl named Sofi Collis, originally from Siberia and then adopted and brought to the U.S. at the age of two, submitted her essay on naming the rovers and included:
“I used to live in an orphanage. It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better.
I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Opportunity.'”
Sofi’s essay was chosen out of 10,000 entries and the contest was sponsored by the Lego Co., a Denmark-based toymaker that created Lego versions of the rovers, and with collaboration from the Planetary Society, in Pasadena, CA, with CEO, Bill Nye, The Science Guy.
Maybe the reason that we seem to hold the rovers close to our hearts is that they seem very similar to living creatures. Each of the Mars rovers have identifiable “parts” of:
Spirit and Opportunity landed on the planet Mars on January 3rd and 24th of 2004.
Although they were designed to rove across the terrain of Mars and send back information and data on samples, images, and experiments, the missions were only really thought to last around 90 days.
The little rovers astounded everyone with Opportunity working and functioning for almost 15 years and Spirit for 6 years.
The little rovers have found and sent back an incredible amount of data about Mars, including:
Each of the rovers was created to be a kind of mechanical “geologist,” moving from one location to another to get samples and do experiments.
The cameras on the rovers are around 5 feet (1.5 meters) high, and provide a kind of two-eyed human-like view with a 360-degree turn.
The robotic arm that is on each rover also as a kind of elbow and wrist so that they can pick up soil samples and rocks.
The mechanical “hand” that is attached to the arm has a microscopic camera that acts in the same way as a magnifying lens.
The “Rock Abrasion Tool” is similar to the hammer that geologists use to expose the inside of rocks.
NASA established the DSN (Deep Space Network) which is an international network of antennas that link the communication of scientists and engineers on Earth to the rovers in space and on Mars.
The DSN is pretty sophisticated and made up of three deep-space communications facilities around 120 degrees apart around the world: near Canberra, Australia; California’s Mojave Desert, and near Madrid, Spain.
DSN supports interplanetary spacecraft missions, radio and radar astronomy observations for the solar system and universe exploration.
Upon arrival to Mars, each rover was inside an airbag bubble that bounced across the surface until it stopped.
The airbags then deflated, the landing craft opened and a ramp let the rovers roll out to begin their historic missions.
The landing sphere was designed to continue to bounce on the light gravity of Mars and then once the bouncing slowed down it would roll to an “upright” position.
The mission’s main goals was for the rovers to search for and then characterize a lot of different soils and rock types on the surface of Mars to see if there was any evidence of potential past water activity on the red planet.
Predetermined target sites had been set up for the best possibilities.
Opportunity landed at Meridiani Planum, which was thought to possibly be a former lake caused by a crater impact in the past.
Spirit landed at Gusey Crater, where scientists thought possible mineral deposits might exist in a past wet history of the surface.
Over the years, the world continued to watch and monitor the journey of these two little rovers.
They went so far beyond their original 90-day mission that scientists were unsure when they would stop.
Since they were powered by solar energy, their batteries needed to regenerate.
They lasted during massive dust storms when scientists were sure they would end their missions.
The last communication from the rovers was on June 10, 2018. Opportunity had broken a record for extraterrestrial travel at 28.06 miles (45.16 km).