Thirteen years ago today, NASA’s Spirit rover began its seven-month journey to Mars, where it would spend roughly six years searching for evidence that liquid water had once existed on the surface of the Red Planet.
Measuring in at 4.9 feet in height, 7.5 feet in width and 5.2 feet in length, the six-wheeled Spirit was powered by a multi-panel solar array capable of producing up to 140 watts of electricity. For nighttime activities, it relied on rechargeable lithium ion batteries to get the job done. It was also equipped with panoramic and navigational cameras, a microscopic imager that provided detailed images of the rocks and soil on Mars for study by astrogeologists, and several other instruments and tools for collecting data and performing up-close examinations of Mars’ surface.
During its years-long run on Mars, Spirit made a number of notable discoveries. In 2007, it accidentally stumbled upon sizable deposits of silica after its lone disabled wheel left a small ditch in its wake as it dragged along the Martian surface, indicating the possibility that large volumes of hot water may have once made their way to the surface of Mars via hydrothermal vents similar to those found in Yellowstone Park. Such vents may have been home to various forms of microbial life.
In 2005, Spirit discovered an abundance of carbonate-rich rocks inside Gusev Crater, providing further evidence that liquid water may have once existed on the surface of Mars. However, the discovery wasn’t confirmed until 2010 due to dusting of the rover’s Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer, an instrument used to determine the material composition of Martian rocks.
In addition to the scientific date collected during its mission, Spirit snapped the first picture of Earth taken from the surface of Mars. It also captured some incredible images of dust devils dancing across Gusev Crater.
By all possible measures, Spirit was a massive success. It’s estimated lifespan had been 90 sols — the term “sol” refers to one solar day on Mars, which lasts about 24 hours and 39 minutes — but it outlived this estimate by over 2,000 sols. And had it not experienced the misfortune of getting stuck in a patch of soft sand, it might still be in operation today. Spirit’s twin, the Opportunity rover, landed on Mars just three weeks after Spirit and is still alive and kicking after all this time.