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Spirit on Mars

To look at the achievements of the NASA Mars rover team, and consider that adversity can lead to surprising good things!

by Gordon Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 3


To look at the achievements of the NASA Mars rover team, and consider that adversity can lead to surprising good things!

Preparation and materials


  1. In June and July 2003 NASA, the American space agency, launched two identical robots towards Mars. The robots, or ‘rovers’, were given the names Spirit and Opportunity.

    Spirit and Opportunity landed in January 2004 and set about exploring the Red Planet. An important part of their mission was to search for rocks and soils that might suggest that water once existed on Mars.

    The missions were intended to last for three months, yet more than seven years later one of the rovers, Opportunity, is still going strong! (Check for the latest news on Opportunity as this is clearly an on-going story!)

    Spirit kept going for more than six years, until March 2010 - not bad for something that was only meant to survive three months!
  2. During their missions, the two rovers achieved amazing things, despite operating in the cold Martian climate where dust regularly blew into their mechanisms and coated their solar panels - their only source of power.
    They were fitted with advanced computers that enabled them to navigate around the rocky terrain on Mars. This was essential because Mars is so far away from Earth that it can take a radio signal from 4 minutes to more than 20 minutes to reach out across space from one planet to the other (the variation in the time is due to Mars’ orbit, which brings the planet now closer and now farther away from the Earth).
  3. A lot has happened to the two rovers during their time on Mars, but here’s one amazing true story.

    In 2006, one of Spirit’s six wheels, a front wheel, stuck. The wheel couldn’t be made to turn. It seemed that it would stop the rover from . . . roving!

    The scientific team at NASA put an exact copy of Spirit in a special sandpit that resembled the Martian surface and they worked out that by swivelling and carefully driving the other five wheels they could get the rover moving again. There was just one problem - from now on Spirit would have to drive backwards, dragging the dead wheel behind it!

    So, slowly, awkwardly, the damaged craft began roving and exploring - once again making progress despite such a serious setback.

    The team had not given up. They had worked at the problem, found a solution and continued the mission.

    Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all there.
  4. But that wasn’t all . . .

    In 2007, while Spirit was driving - backwards, of course - its camera looked back and saw that the dead wheel had churned up the soil and made a trench, just as you would if you dragged a stick through sand. The ploughed-up soil was bright white.

    Spirit’s scientific instruments soon established that this soil was almost pure silica - like sea sand on Earth. The scientists were delighted with this discovery; just listen to the words of Steve Squyres, principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity:

    ‘Spirit’s unexpected discovery of concentrated silica deposits was one of the most important findings by either rover. It showed that there were once hot springs or steam vents at the Spirit site, which could have provided favourable conditions for microbial life.’

    So an accident and human ingenuity led to one of the most important discoveries of the whole rover mission.

Time for reflection

From the story of the amazing Spirit rover and its NASA team we see:

- the brilliant achievements that can be brought about with human imagination, science and technology;

- that when things go wrong, we can work together to find a solution and keep going;

- that setbacks can lead to new discoveries and new ways of working.

What lessons will you take away from this story?


‘Every star shall sing a carol’ (see ‘Preparation and materials’)

Publication date: January 2012   (Vol.14 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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