On January 4, 2004, NASA’s first Mars Rover, Spirit, landed on the red planet to begin a mission expected to last ninety days. Seven years on, thw rover remains stuck in the pit of soft soil where it foundered in May 2009. The deep furrow running up the middle of the image was caused as Spirit ran in reverse, dragging its right front wheel, malfunctioning after nearly five miles of travel across the dusty Martian landscape.
A lot of words have been flung at the rovers over the years (the second rover, Opportunity, is still going strong); every encomium disappears into their unlikely magnificence. Their longevity defies description; when I think of all the battery-operated toy vehicles my kids have played with over the years, which now lie moribund in the dusty attic or marooned on the far side of the basement, the thought of those faraway rovers still running at the behest of their Earthbound crews—well, it widens the eyes, doesn’t it?
This is a composite image, stitched together from hundreds of individual shots taken by Spirit over the course of three weeks after it became stuck (if you wish, click on the image for a link to a high-res file). Change happens slowly on Mars; Spirit could afford to be patient. Mission scientists haven’t been able to raise a signal from the rover since March 2010; they’re hoping to make contact in March of this year, when sunlight striking Spirit’s solar cells will be at its strongest. [front-page image via NASA]