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This Day In History: Spirit Exploration Rover Lands On Mars

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Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP (Getty Images)

On January 3, 2004, Mars Exploration Rover Spirit began to make history. It touched down on the Red Planet for the first time, kicking off one of NASA’s longest and most successful missions—and helping us mere earthlings better understand the wonderful universe we live in.

(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)


Spirit was joined by its twin Opportunity three weeks later, and together, the two rovers discovered the possibility of water on the planet as a result of rock testing. The landing site for the second rover seemed to possess the same qualities as a sea bed.

The primary mission was only supposed to last 90 sols, or 90 Martian days, but the rovers were so robust that they kicked around on the planet for several years collecting data.


To give you an example of just how much Spirit did, let’s talk distance. NASA only intended it to cover 600 m, or 0.4 miles. Instead, it logged 7.73 km, or 4.8 miles. As a result, NASA was able to collect tons of geological information about the planet, far more than expected. This is the mission that let humans start dreaming about colonizing Mars.

We learned so much. We learned that Mars has dust devils just like we do on Earth. We were able to better map Mars’ surface, along with a greater understanding of what types of materials each section was composed of. It was an awesome mission in every sense of the word.

Unfortunately, on May 1, 2009, Spirit got stuck in some soft sand. It wasn’t the first time it had happened on the mission, and the rover was able to serve as a stationary analysis tool for a while while NASA tried to figure out how to get it unstuck. That never happened. On January 26, 2010, NASA announced that it was likely never going to be moved. Opportunity continued to explore.

Just two months later, Spirit stopped transmitting to NASA. Fourteen months later, NASA announced that it was no longer attempting to contact the rover, calling its mission complete.