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NASA celebrates stunning discoveries made by Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity

Nine years ago today, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory began their missions to Mars. On January 3rd, 2004 NASA’s first Mars rover, which was named Spirit, reached the Red Planet. Nine years later, the program is still going strong with a total of three rovers on Martian soil.

Spirit first landed on Mars at a geographical location known as Gusey crater. The robotic rover was contained in landing gear that consisted of many airbags. After bouncing across the terrain, the rover finally came to a stop, left the airbags behind, and began its journey.

Spirit did not remain alone for long, just three weeks after landing on the Red Planet the first Mars rover was joined by its twin, which was named Opportunity. Opportunity landed on the other side of the planet and together the two began making scientific history.

The rovers’ initial mission was supposed to last just 90 days. NASA had sent Spirit and Opportunity to conduct tests and determine if water was or ever had been on Mars. After the initial 90 days were up, the rovers remained on Mars and have been studying the environment ever since. Their most significant discovery to date was that Mars used to be much warmer and wetter than the current environment.

Spirit, the first rover on Mars, is no longer optional. In 2009, the rover got stuck in loose soil around “Home Plate,” a large rock on the planet. NASA engineers could not get the rover out of the hole so they changed Spirit’s mission to a stationary research project. This continued until the end of March 2010 when Spirit went into low-power hibernation to get ready for winter on Mars. NASA never heard from the rover again. The Spirit mission was officially concluded on May 25, 2011 after the engineers tried once again to contact the rover.

Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, has remained active, however. In fact, except for breaks during the winter, the rover has been constantly running for almost nine years. In August 2012, Opportunity was joined by a new rover, the much larger and more sophisticated Curiosity.

Though much of NASA’s attention has been on Curiosity lately, Opportunity has continued to make some significantly scientific discoveries. Currently, the older of the two rovers is studying an area of Mars that scientists think may have contained microbial life in the past.

After almost nine years on Martian terrain, Opportunity is starting to wind down a bit. With the addition of Curiosity, NASA’s JPL has ensured that the robotic rover missions will not die out once Opportunity concludes like Spirit. Curiosity is powered by a nuclear battery, which will keep the rover going for much longer than the two year mission it is currently on.

Curiosity is currently studying an area of Mars known as Gale Crater. Once it has canvassed this area, it will climb to the peak of a Martian mountain known as Mount Sharp. Curiosity is just 2,200km from where NASA lost communication with Spirit. Curiosity is not likely to stay the newest rover for long. NASA plans to send a similar rover to Mars by 2020