NASA lets go of Spirit

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2011 6:13 am

After nearly a year of trying to reestablish communications with the Spirit Mars rover, NASA has decided to suspend efforts. For all intent and purpose, Spirit is dead.

The rover sent its last message in March of 2010, and it was hoped that as Martian summer dawned at Spirit’s location, the solar cells might absorb enough energy to reawaken the plucky explorer. However, repeated attempts over several months have yielded no joy. And now, just months away from the launch of the much more ambitious "Curiosity" Mars Science Laboratory — a golfcart-sized rover with better range and instrumentation than any previous mission — communications satellites and Mars orbiters NASA uses to work with Spirit need to be transitioned to MSL.

This makes me sad, of course: Spirit was an amazing machine. But I have to admit, that sadness is offset by the incredible accomplishments of the rover. Designed to last for three months, Spirit kept on roving for over six years. Imagine having a car, a computer, that lasted for 25 times the warranty!

Or living to be 1500 years old. How much could you accomplish in that time?

Spirit’s made good use of its lifespan.

So while I’m sad about this, I know (as I wrote when we lost communication with Spirit last year) that this robot is one of the most successful NASA missions of all time. It’s hard not to anthropomorphize our work sometimes, and I think it’s appropriate to be sad. But I’m also very happy that Spirit could do what it did. It was a triumph of human engineering, human cleverness, and the very human need to explore what’s around the next corner… even when that corner is a hundred million kilometers away.

Related posts:

Spirit is willing, but the metal is weak
Sunset on Mars
xkcd has the Spirit

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Piece of mind
MORE ABOUT: Mars, Spirit

Comments (73)

  1. kennypo65

    That is very sad. I have the very first picture of Mars that Spirit sent back as the background on my desktop. I’m really going to miss her.

  2. Both rovers launched within weeks of the birth of my first child. So, I have a special place for them in my heart. I’m sad as well but considering the designed lifespan vs actual lifespan and all of the accomplishments; it’s truly amazing.

    Maybe one day when we travel to Mars, we can visit the sites of some of the past missions. After all, we have those areas well documented. :)

    Rest in peace, Spirit.

  3. Gonçalo Aguiar

    What about Opportunity? Is it still crashin’ about?

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    @^ Gonçalo Aguiar : Yes, I do believe and, better yet, *know* that it is. :-)

    Remarkable endurance these Mars Exploration Rovers have. [As Yoda might put it.] 😉


    Vale Spirit I raise a spirit of my own (namely my beer) to you.

    Farewell and thankyou.
    Good rover! What a great rover. [Eyes moist.] :-)

    PS. That xkcd tribute? Brilliant, no better *superluminous*.

  5. Scottynuke

    All good things come to an end. :( But WHAT a run! :)

  6. Dddd

    I’ve watched the rovers since the day they landed and checked the rover site weekly since then. Now, while I’m sad that Spirit was not revived, I’m surprised that people seem to hardly ever mention Opportunity when discussing Spirit. From my point of view, they both have made great scientific discoveries. Honestly, to me, Spirit has always been the trouble child that was always getting stuck in the sand. Yeah, Opportunity had the should issue,but guess what, Opportunity sucked it up and still continues to move on towards Endeavour. Opportunity is currently in third place on the list of distances driven on other worlds, passing the Apollo 15 and Apollo 16 rovers in the past year. Anyhoo, I just feel like Opportunity gets left out of the conversation. Maybe if Opportunity sprained an ankle and had to crawl backwards like her sister, then maybe she’d get a little more attention and respect.

  7. Rallick

    Every time I read that xkcd comic the room gets inexplicably dusty. So long, little Spirit.

  8. Mejilan

    Brilliant run, Spirit! Well done, and now for a well deserved rest!
    And let’s not forget that Opportunity is still truckin’ along!
    If I’m not mistaken, she’s around 3 miles away from her next target!

  9. Larry

    An astonishing machine, no doubt, but, being an engineer myself, my props go to the men and women who designed and built it and the people ran and kept it going all these years.

    When the NASA bean counters and bureaucrats get out of the way, its amazing what these folks can do.

  10. NoAstronomer

    Six years without so much as an oil change!

  11. Noid

    Every time I see that particular XKCD strip, I feel compelled to show people this video:

    ( …and now even more relevant with the news that a new mission will be launching :) )

    The little fella still had a good run though, so I’m looking forward to what ‘Curiosity’ can deliver.

  12. So long, little Spirit! When we finally make it up there, we’ll bring you home and give you a proper homecoming ceremony.

    I really hope the Rube-Goldbergesque Curiosity entry and landing procedures work out. That will be a hell of a mission, and I’m really looking forward to watching it unfold.

  13. Mark

    It really has been a good run. Spirit, well done. You really went above and beyond.

    And don’t worry, little rover. Some day, far in the future, gloved human hands will lift you from your sandy dune, lovingly dust you off, and haul you back to their brand new settlement. You will receive a place of highest honor in the first museum on Mars, right next to your uncle Viking and your sister Opportunity. It may take a long time, but you’re a trooper; you’ll make it.

    That said.. and this is just me idly musing.. while the computers don’t have enough power to contact Earth, does that mean they are necessarily broken? I know that the cold could damage the components, but still… Is it plausible that, should Spirit be dislodged for whatever reason in the near future, that it could simply power back up and continue? Assuming of course nothing else gets broken (filled with dust, cold, et cetera). Which then makes me wonder… we will be sending more probes and landers to Mars, and there has been a lot of discussion regarding swarms; a lot of tiny robots which, collectively, do more science than just one. What if we custom build one of those bots to be a tugboat? Useful for pulling its sisters out of the sand, but could it also be used for Spirit? It may be the longest of the long shots, but is it theoretically (if impractically) possible that Spirit may pull a Rocky and come back?

    Quick, someone tell SETI to transmit “Eye of the Tiger” to Mars!

  14. Sam H

    “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 Collins, namer of the rovers.

    As all the wars raged on on Earth, they kept trekking. As oil spilled and regimes fell, jobs were lost and nukes tested, they were tireless in their search for the signs of life – signs that we may not be alone in this terribly vast and empty universe after all. And signs that a barren, deadly, rusting old world may hold the opportunity (pun intended :)) to one day be another home for us.

    As well, read this little gem I found on a different forum (scroll down and you’ll see it):

    After reading Oryx and Crake, 1984, and learning about just how bad climate change is (likely grossly understated by the IPCC), as well as things like peak oil, I’ve become pessimistic of what the future holds, and have basically given up on most of my dreams of the colonization of other worlds and the stars. Face it – given the decline the US is in, NASA will probably never get men to Mars, and private companies may not hold up past peak oil unless someone builds a space elevator FAST. But after reading this, I recall the wonder I once have (and still have occasionally) of these things. They REALLY went to another world!! They uncovered it’s secrets!! And they did it beyond what anyone could have imagined.

    One is fortunately doing science and she’s still alive, but all good things must come to end…and today they have.

    RIP little buddy. (insert nonexistent salute smiley here)

  15. Grizzly

    The anthropomorphism of the XKCD comic does tug at the heart strings. Who can’t find a stirring of admiration for that plucky little machine in their hearts?

    I tell you what stirs my emotions more though, the knowledge that we – humans – dreamed, planned, laboured, and sent this probe to another world.

    Sagan said that we are made of the stuff of stars. Spirit was made of the stuff of our dreams and imaginings and curiosity and yearning to see what lies beyond the rim of our horizons.

    That sends shivers up and down my spine. Well done Spirit, well done those of you who worked on the program. Bravo.

  16. Thespis

    Yes, yes- send the Mars SWIFFER (Science With Implications For Freeing Entrapped Rovers) mission ASAP. A Valet Rover, if you will. With dusters, squeegees and the like, equipped with a voicebox recorded by Stephen Fry.

  17. Jason

    Good reference to the xkcd strip. It makes me sad.

  18. KC

    Alas, poor Spirit I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite discovery, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is!
    My gorge rises at it.

  19. Michel

    Makes me a bit sad. Little bugger. Totally alone up there.
    On the other hand. Look what pictures and knowledge they gave us.
    Their actions went above their mission briefs!
    They just kept going.
    Against whatever Mars could throw at them.
    There they were.
    Going were no man had gone before.
    Those Rovers deserve a medal!

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    @12. Noid : Every time I see that particular XKCD strip, I feel compelled to show people this video

    Thinking compelling videoclips this one by Marian Call :

    is superluminous & hell moving too. :-)

    @ 20. Michel : Those Rovers deserve a medal!

    Yes, they do.

    If R2 D2 could get get a medal in the end of the original Star Wars then, yeah, the Mars rovers deserve one too. :-)

  21. Bob

    Very sad, but I would like to go on record by saying that JPL and NASA engineers are rockstars in my book. You want bang for your buck, go to them. What an absolutely staggeringly successful mission! Good job folks!

    I think that we should rename the poor little guy Marvin. It seems appropriate today.

  22. It’s all a hoax! A coverup! They just don’t want you to see the final image transmitted last year:

    (Darn, it won’t let me imbed an image. I guess you’ll just have to click the link to get the joke.)

  23. Nemo

    Sam H, if it’s any consolation, peak oil should help to limit climate change. Two wrongs make a right? :)

    Seriously, peak oil just means that oil will soon become expensive enough that alternatives look more desirable, and they’ll be picked up long before the oil runs out. It’s an inconvenience, or at worst, an economic crisis — not the end of the world. And it really will help to drive exactly the kind of change that we need anyway.

    The XKCD strip bothers me. The rovers were never designed to come back, so if you imagine them as having self-awareness, then I think you also ought to imagine them as having an accurate understanding of their intended mission, instead of pretending that they’d expect or want to come “home”. Earth isn’t even “home” for them anyway; they’re designed for Mars. It may seem silly for me to complain about this, but the whole premise of the strip is an emotional manipulation that ultimately just doesn’t make sense.

  24. Quase

    That’ll do Rover, that’ll do.

  25. Matt

    Well done, Spirit. You were fantastic.

  26. Michel

    You are against Pluto also?

  27. Douglas Troy

    For some reason, this quote from Blade Runner comes to mind at this moment:

    I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.

  28. Number 6

    @Jerome…”When we finally make it up there, we’ll bring you home and give you a proper homecoming ceremony.”

    I really hope we can do that someday…..I know it’d probably be expensive, but it’d be nice to retrieve the little guy, bring him back to mother earth, dust him off, polish him up, and set him up in an honored place in a NASA museum.

    Until March of last year, he was a sort of Martian Ever-Ready Energizer® Bunny®….He kept going and going and going….

  29. Steve

    I thought John Updike;s comments on the rovers put it best……”Mars has become an ever nearer neighbor, a province of human knowledge.”

  30. If only US auto manufacturers could learn from this little rover!

  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 30. Douglas Troy :

    Is this:

    what you mean?

  32. AF

    Opportunity is still going strong and will avenge the passing of its sister with troves of more discoveries.

  33. JJA

    We spent a lot of effort on getting that robot safely to Mars. I think it would be a shame to drag it all the way back again. Mars is its home now.

  34. Michel

    Finally got one.
    That will go nicely in my cabinet of curiosities.

  35. @ 36: JJA:
    Agreed! maybe centuries from now, when we have terraformed Mars and colonozed, we can set Spirit in a promonent place in the Mars Exploration museum.

  36. Andre Boll

    I have just one thing to say to the NASA and JPL teams who built the rovers, and kept them running this far:

    Great work!

    And also one more thing:

    Windshield wipers!

    Cheers! :-)

  37. Tony

    You know…I have often though they should just make a whole mess of these little rovers, with their proven design, and just basically invade Mars with them. Imagine all we could learn..

  38. @Michael:

    Oh my gosh, I must go across the street to NASA and see if they have those in the gift store! (I work in DC right next to the NASA building)

  39. Dawn

    This was such an amazing adventure and it brings tears to my eyes to think that Spirit is dead. I hope that someone is listening in case Spirit does try to make contact at some point. The human heart says never give up, never die, so someone keep listening, who knows who will call. Maybe ET….

  40. Maybe the 1million or so military personell stationed on mars would be kind enough to ship it back. Time to remove the silly veil of secrecy surrounding this planet as it obviously plays an important role in our spiritual and galactic hisotry.

  41. Reading this sad news evoked the feelings I have each time I watch the scene in Short Circuit 2 when Johnny 5 is attacked with an axe. Good luck little rover.

  42. I agree with Grizzly (above):

    “I tell you what stirs my emotions more though, the knowledge that we – humans – dreamed, planned, laboured, and sent this probe to another world.

    Sagan said that we are made of the stuff of stars. Spirit was made of the stuff of our dreams and imaginings and curiosity and yearning to see what lies beyond the rim of our horizons.”

    Well said, Grizzly. It truly amazes me what people can imagine, create, build…and do. I applaud everyone involved with the little rover’s inception through its incredible six year life-span!! What an accomplishment!! It just proves we can do anything we put our minds to, so dream on, World, dream on.

    Spirit, Well done! Rest in Peace. We’ll miss you. :(

  43. Keith Bowden

    That model rover is sweeet! I don’t know whether to be glad or disappointed that I didn’t know about it when my (now spent) tax refund came in…

  44. Zippy the Pinhead

    A robot dies … and the world mourns.

    Seriously though, the rover was not “designed to last for three months”, it was designed to operate on the surface of Mars. The mission was for 90 martian sols. That Spirit exceeded the mission goals is great, but to keep saying it was somehow supposed to last only 90 days is simply a bad cliche invented by the press.

  45. Michel

    I was on the hunt for the model for so long. But they were always out of stock.
    And now that they switch Spirit off, and I have a look again, they have them in stock.

  46. Doodler

    The 90 Day thing is slightly misunderstood, I agree. It was a guarantee of 90 days at peak performance efficiency, which Spirit met and exceeded after a little weirdness at the start, in order to meet the initially funded science goals of the mission.

    Anything after that was up to the deskdrivers to fund at their discretion, and brother they gave a LOT of discretion.

    Spirit/Opportunity rates right up their with Voyager 2 and SOHO for the absolute most bang for the buck ever pulled out of a piece of mission hardware.

  47. Well, the 90 days (sols) of science operations was one of the mission success criteria. The rovers were designed to have an extremely high probability of lasting that long, which of course meant there was a good probability of lasting longer. The serendipity has been in the convenient breezes that kept cleaning off their solar panels, else both would have died years ago.

  48. Mike Mullen

    Couldn’t they just put a winch on Curiosity? :)

  49. Michael (#38):

    But it’s not functional.

    Now, turn it into a LEGO Mindstorm, and you’ve got a lot of potential…

  50. Thomas Siefert

    living to be 1500 years old. How much could you accomplish in that time?

    I would probably spend the time looking for the Fountain of Youth and after having attained immortality, I would lobby for the Firefly show to be picked up again for a new series.
    After this, if there is still time before the universe ends, I’ll give world peace a go.

  51. Stephan Moore

    Regarding the article itself, are you really suppose to use a space before and after an em dash?

  52. Autumn

    Ave atque vale.

  53. Someday a human being will walk up to Spirit and take a look. Maybe fix it; maybe put it in a museum.

  54. larch

    so, as far as Spirit is concerned, is this throw-in-the Towel Day? No disrespect meant.

  55. katwagner

    I’m sad and I don’t care. Sweet lil Rover is all alone up there and there’s no place like home. @Zucchi. I hope so.

  56. JB of Brisbane

    Just read the xkcd strip. I felt like going, “Awwwww….”

  57. Jesper

    That XKCD is not new, but it’s the saddest XKCD I’ve ever seen. :(

  58. Michel

    @63 Jesper
    And that´s why you never ever should give hope to a machine…

  59. Beelzebud

    And some people want to say that NASA is a waste of tax money…. If you ask me, they don’t get as much as they deserve.

  60. Quiet Desperation

    Or living to be 1500 years old.

    Ehhhhhhh…. more like a person who wasn’t expected to live past age 3 but lived to 75 anyway.

    Imagine having a car, a computer, that lasted for 25 times the warranty!

    I’d get bored of the car, and the computer will become obsolete in the same amount of time.

    Ah, don’t mind me. Just nitpicky today. :(

  61. HP

    I wonder — if we petitioned Congress to award a posthumous Space Medal of Honor to Spirit, how far do you think the effort would go?

    Awarded for “exceptionally meritorious efforts and contributions to the welfare of the Nation and mankind.” That pretty much sums it up, right?

  62. FoxtrotCharlie

    It would be nice to recover spirit one day in the future.

  63. Michel

    This Is the Last Image the Spirit Mars Rover Ever Saw

    goodbye Spirit.

  64. I have been wondering if Curiosity could bring Spirit back to Earth since she is so big.But there is still one question that I am asking,Did Opporitunity happen to go by Spirit.If you didnt get what I am asking then I will explain it this way.Ok so you know Spirit died,when she died,she was in a sand trap,so when she died,she is still there in that sand trap.So if Opportunity was heading in that direction,why didnt Opportunity stop by and take pictures and send them back to earth so the scientists or you guys can remember the little feller.I think Opportunitys next mission should be to go where Spirit is right now and stay with her until Curiosity gets there.Well maybe just not sitting there,I did mean for her to help her out so Curiosity can get her back home.Will you please get the scientists to read this because I really do think that Opportunitys next mission should be to go where Spirit is rite now and send pictures of her back to Earth.And when Curiosity does get there,Is Curiosity going to get Spirit back to earth,or is she just going to let her sit there.Or you should program Curiosity to help Spirit out.I would write more but im at school and i have to go.but please think about these suggestions about helping Spirit.I loved spirit the most,I dont know why,shes just my favorite rover of all times.

  65. debbie

    I think the Spirits soul is needed for Curiosity’s success in August. Spirit will return!


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