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  • Writer's pictureMatt Russell

#182 - Spirit Special - Stimson Snead

This week we talk to Stimson Snead about Spirit:A Martian Story a new must watch film hosted on the aldrinfoundation. We have a quick look on Hubble at 30 and also do a deep dive on the real Spirit MER

countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope

Neil DeGrasse Tyson - Space Chronicles

During the 3 years that Hubble had blurry vision, astrophysicists wrote image processing software that allowed images to have some use, resolving stars from blurry fields of view.

So in collaboration with Hubble scientist medical researchers at the Lombardi comprehensive cancer centre at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington DC Improved their visual search for tumours in mammograms with the help of funding from the National Science Foundation and the medical community adopted these new techniques to assist in the early detection of breast cancer


This Week's Guest : Stimson Snead

“NASA sought evidence of life on Mars.That search begins with water, and the search for water begins with the study of the rocks and the soil.That was the historic mission of the rovers SPIRIT and OPPORTUNITY.This is SPIRIT’S story.The story of the SPIRIT and OPPORTUNITY Mars exploration rovers is an extraordinarily inspirational one. It resonates on a gut level to all of us working in and following the science and space community.The online comic XKCD: SPIRIT by Randall Monroe, succeeded in driving home just how meaningful this story was; becoming an instant internet meme shared by young and old alike.It has been the pleasure to translate that comic to film in order to share the inspiration of SPIRIT: A MARTIAN STORY, with the world!”

Exclusive Footage

This is scientifically inaccurate so was cut from the film, check out the podcast for the hilarious story behind the clip.


Spirit Special

The real Spirit

Pete Theisinger (1945) had graduated from CalTech in 1967 and joined JPL, he would go on to work on a variety of missions, including the 1967 Mariner mission to Venus, the 1971 Mariner orbiter mission to Mars, the 1977 Voyager mission to the outer planets of the solar system, and the 1989 Galileo mission to Jupiter. But by 2000 he was the project manager of one of the best ever space missions Mars Exploration Rover (MER). No one had built mars rovers before, and they didn’t have much time to do it.

Spirit and Opportunity

At a combined cost about $850 million to develop, launch and operate they are identical rovers each weighing about 400 lb. Spirit was the second built, but the first MER to launch and land

LEGO and NASA selected the names “Spirit” and “Opportunity” through a student essay contest that drew nearly 10,000 entries. The LEGO Group also helped NASA to provide an opportunity to “Send Your Name to Mars” on a mini-DVD on board each of the twin rovers. Each DVD carried the names of about 4 million people to two different locations on Mars


Spirit or MER-A (MER-2) Launched on June 10, 2003, 2 p.m ,

  • Rocket Delta II 7925-9.5

  • Launch site: Cape Canaveral

Opportunity MER-B (MER-1) July 7, 2003 on the heavy version of launch vehicle, needing the extra energy for Trans-Mars injection.

The launch vehicles were integrated onto pads right next to each other. The dual pads allowed for working the 15- and 21-day planetary launch periods close together; the last possible launch day for MER-A was June 19, 2003 and the first day for MER-B was June 25, 2003.


The Spirit Mars rover and lander arrived successfully on the surface of Mars on 04:35 Ground UTC on January 4, 2004, for her originally planned for 90 sol mission, Theisinger felt the solar array dust buildup and the resulting electrical power loss would probably not allow us to survive beyond the first deep winter, But dust devils which cleaned the dust off the solar arrays and the policy of going to North slopes and hibernating through the winters worked in reality and as we shall see Spirit lasted a lot longer.

Gusev is a crater on the planet Mars and is located in the Aeolis quadrangle. The crater is about 166 kilometres in diameter and formed approximately three to four billion years ago. It was named after Russian astronomer Matvei Gusev (who worked at Vilnius Observatory, one of the best places ever), Also a potential landing site for the 2020 Perseverance rover

Airbags softened the landing, and Spirit simply rolled out of the lander and took a panoramic image, the highest resolution image taken on the surface of another planet.. MER team named the landing site "Columbia Memorial Station,"

"Sleepy Hollow," a 9 meters (30 ft) across shallow crater iabout 12 meters (39 ft) north of the lander was targeted as an early destination when the rover drove off its lander platform.

After 17 sols DISASTER strikes

Spirit stopped communicating with mission control and, this was a disastrous situation, the rover then started half responding to transmissions, but was stubbornly in fault mode. This was a major software glitch and the rover was ignoring commands, not going to sleep like it was told, and was risking overheating and using up the battery, potentially fatal.

In walks Miami star John Adler a PhD from Caltech, who is a total bangout in data compression, (Gzip, ZLib, PNG) “The Spirit had insomnia, fever, he was weakening all the time, muttering incoherently, and for a long time did not obey the commands.”

He sent a command to turn off the device until a certain time - SHUTDWN_DMT_TIL, (shutdown dammit until) which takes precedence over any actions performed by the device at the moment (command names were modestly decorated with humour).

“The rover's computer was stuck in the “reset loop”. The software response to a problem that it cannot solve is a reboot. The same thing that you do when your computer freezes. But since there was no one who could press the reset button, the rover did this automatically. However, if the software encounters an error during a reboot, then it is doomed to reboot forever” Spirit rebooted itself 60 times in two days

Luckily developers had stuck in backdoors, Adler was able to send some commands in between boots, and one was to tell Spirit to stop looking at its flash storage device, and this meant that Spirit could be rebooted and started speaking normally again. and then Spirits twin was landing. A busy week at JPL. He then reformatted the flash drive and got Spirit back to working normally by Sol 32

On photo pulled of the memory taken before the crash is of the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) that has a US flag painted on the protective casing, which was made from the remains of the Twin towers, leading to an emotional moment in mission control.

Grinding on Mars.

In a first, Spirit using the RAT was able to grind into a Rock called Adirondack, 45mm diameter and 2.65mm deep, and revealed the rock to be volcanic Basalt.

Adirondack is Mohalk slang meaning “they eat trees” about other tribes who lived in the Adirondack mountains new york.

Next up for a bit of Grinding was Humphrey Rock

detailed inspection of the rock revealed a bright material filling internal cracks which may have crystallized from water trickling through the volcanic rock. The amount of Mars once covered by ancient water remains unknown, as both rovers landed in regions thought likely to once be underwater.

Onto Bonerville crater on Sol 65 370m later, Spirit it was decide was to dangerous for it to go into the crater as there was no real target, so she went round the rim towards the Columbia Hills, the same happened at Missoula and Lahontan craters.

Quick word on Naming conventions

  • Large craters: Deceased scientists who have contributed to the study of Mars; writers and others who have contributed to the lore of Mars

  • Small craters: Villages of the world with a population of less than 100,000.

  • Large valles: Name for Mars/star in various languages

  • Small valles: Classical or modern names of rivers

  • Other features: From nearest named albedo feature on Schiaparelli or Antoniadi maps.

Spirit team named a set of hills to the east of the landing site the Columbia Hills Complex, denoting seven peaks in that area as "Anderson", "Brown", "Chawla", "Clark", "Husband", "McCool", and "Ramon";

If you are a filmmaker you might get a crater on Mercury ...but not on Mars.

With a mix of autonomous and human driving, Spirit then drove straight to Columbia hills to the West Spur and the first target Hank’s Hollow, a 23 sol stay, Within Hank's Hollow was the strange-looking rock dubbed "Pot of Gold". Analysing this rock with the AXPS-and the Mößbauer instrument proved difficult because it lay in a slippery area. But worth the effort it contains hematite. A rock associated with water.

Spirit now had total shutdowns at night to preserve power, as it was heading into winter. Onto Wooly Patch, which was studied from sol 192 to sol 199. By sol 203, Spirit had driven southward up the hill and arrived at the rock dubbed "Clovis". Clovis was ground and analyzed from sol 210 to sol 225. Following Clovis came the targets of Ebenezer (Sols 226–235), Tetl (sol 270), Uchben and Palinque (Sols 281–295), and Lutefisk (Sols 296–303). From Sols 239 to 262, Spirit powered down for solar conjunction.

By SOL 344 Spirit had made its way around the summit of Husband Hill, and started to climb over the newly designated "Cumberland Ridge" and into "Larry's Lookout" named after a geologist Larry Crumpler and "Tennessee Valley".

Earth as seen from Mars, shortly before daybreak. This is the first image of the Earth from the surface of another planet.

Spirit took the first photo of Earth from the surface of another planet in early March 2004.

How did Spirit talk to Earth,

Usually done with the NASA orbiters Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor. Spirit also did some communication tests with the ESA orbiter Mars Express

End of Year One!!! Year 2 Starts

The drive up Husband Hill was a nightmare and slippy, so they uploaded new software to help Spirit drive more autonomously, By Sol 371 Spirit was at peace, the rock, not as in she had died.

Spirit couldn’t resist a bit of grinding with her RAT on Sol 373, so much for Peace on the surface of Mars.

The Journey to Larry’s Lockout was done in reverse and on the way samples were taken and found to be very salty, Steven Squyres said of the discovery, "with this much salt around, water had a hand here".

The lucky power wash

On Sol 419 the solar panels jumped from 60% to 92% efficiency, at the same time Spirit was taking amazing footage of dust devils, and one of these dust devils had come along and blown all the sand of the Panels, extending the mission.

Spirit became the first human machine to climb a mountain on another planet on Sol 581 August 21st 2005 by getting to the top of Husband Hill (named in honor of Rick Husband, the commander of the Space Shuttle Columbia ) after an almost 5km journey, Spirit took a 360 degree panorama which included the whole of the Gusev crater

  • At night the rover observed the moons Phobos and Deimos in order to determine their orbits better.

  • On sol 656 Spirit surveyed the Mars sky and the opacity of the atmosphere with its pancam to make a coordinated science campaign with the Hubble Space Telescope in Earth orbit

  • Spirit spotted "Home Plate" a striking rock formation

  • Spirit would drive up McCool Hill to tilt its solar panels towards the sun for the coming winter. At the end of October, the rover was driven downhill and to Home Plate.

Year 3

By 2006 Spirits front wheel had stopped working altogether. The brush motors had always been a concern for Theisinger and he had gone with brushless motors for curiosity as a result, however, the wheels had outperformed expectations.

Spirit now permanently drove backwards dragging its front wheel. The climb of McCool hill (named after Steve McCool, from the Columbia disaster)

Homeplate was reached on Sol 744 in Feb 2006. We have an exclusive blooper video of this from the movie, where a misunderstanding makes homeplate the size of a home plate. In reality home plate is a vast plateau / Outcrop, observations were made with the robotic arm. Spirirt was now pretty battered and parked on the ridge pointing her solar back at the sun, the Martian winter was kicking in, but using her arm she was able to carry on some science on rocks lying around her.

Year 4

On Sol 1067, new software gave the rovers more control and intelligence. the ability to automatically recognize and transmit to Earth photographs that they take of swirling dust devils or floating clouds. They can also independently decide whether it is safe to extend their robotic arms to sample rocks. new navigation system that allows them to think several steps ahead when faced with an obstacle, allowing them to back out of a dead end or even navigate a maze on their own.

Remember the dead wheel? Well this turns out to be another piece of luck, Spirit had been ploughing the soil behind her, revealing silica rich dust beneath the topsoil. The researchers have concluded that the bright material must have been produced in one of two ways.

  1. hot-spring deposits produced when water dissolved silica at one location and then carried it to another (i.e. a geyser).

  2. acidic steam rising through cracks in rocks stripped them of their mineral components, leaving silica behind

Both of these features team with bacterial life here on earth.

Classic Pareidolia

Taking a panorama on sol 1,366-1,369 (6-9 November 2007) of its position on the eastern edge of Home Plate, NASA published this in 2008, to little fanfare, but then a tiny human figure was spotted and the picture instantly went viral.

In June 2007 a massive dust storm was blocking 99% of the light to the rovers panels, this is a nightmare, as you can’t just switch them off, they have to keep themselves warm with heaters.

Both rovers were put into hibernation and everyone at Nasa crossed their fingers, toes, legs, etc.

Year 4

Parked at a 30% angle on Home Plate Spirit was getting dangerously close to minimum power, but even then managed a panorama of Bonestell (named after the awesome space artist Chesley Bonestell)

In Novemeber more dust storms threatened Spirit, and now the sunlight received was below the level to run the heaters, so they shut Spirit mostly down, and with careful management managed to get through this dark time,

Year 5

Favourable winds blew the dust of the panels and Spirit was back in action and during the first part of the year the rover started gaining power and efficiency So she started driving again.

The beginning of the end

But Spirit drove into a sand trap in may 2009 (Sol 1892) and another wheel was now playing up in the attempts to get out . This remained the case till January 2010 and by sol 2155 NASA decided to redefine the mobile robot mission by calling it a stationary research platform

Year 6

By March 22 2010 sol 2208, spirit batteries were getting so low that she skipped a communication, there was still a chance that a cleaning event may solve the problem later and Spirit would wake up after a winter, but more likely that the clock had stopped literally and metaphorically. Spirit remains silent at its location, called "Troy," on the west side of Home Plate

JPL continued attempts to regain contact with Spirit until May 25, 2011

7.7Km driven almost 5miles. Spirit has transferred 128,224 pictures in its lifetime.

Only the Rock Abrasion Tool had wore down, after that the device could only be used to brush targets. All of the other science instruments and engineering cameras continued to function until contact was lost; however, towards the end of Spirit's life, the MIMOS II Mössbauer spectrometer took much longer to produce results than it did earlier in the mission because of the decay of its cobalt-57 gamma ray source that has a half life of 271 days.

The main piece of science is really the evidence of watery past, although Spirit found no evidence that a lake was in Gusev, However, in the Columbia Hills there was clear evidence for a moderate amount of aqueous weathering. The evidence included sulfates and the minerals goethite and carbonates that only form in the presence of water. It is believed that Gusev crater may have held a lake long ago, but it has since been covered by igneous materials.


Hubble 30th

Hubble was launched 30 years ago - Launch date: April 24, 1990, 12:33:51 UTC[2]

Rocket Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-31) - Launch site Kennedy LC-39B

Other than the mind-blowing discoveries and Hubble massive contribution to science and engineering here are some facts;

  • 1986 planned launch, butt the Challenger accident paid an end to that

  • US$6 million per month to keep the telescope in a clean room, powered up and purged with nitrogen, until a launch could be rescheduled.

  • original total cost estimate of about US$400 million, the telescope cost about US$4.7 billion by the time of its launch. Hubble's cumulative costs were estimated to be about US$10 billion in 2010, twenty years after launch

  • The mirror had been tested with a single instrument, and that test instrument was assembled incorrectly and although other test equipment had shown the flaw they believed the one custom tool.

  • Kodak had a backup on the ground, but this was impossible to fix in space, so they went for spectacles.

  • The Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR) is no longer required and was brought back to earth and displayed at the National Air and Space Museum

  • 5 x Shuttle servicing missions, that were great at boosting public confidence in NASA

  • The final mission was cancelled, due to shuttle safety concerns, you can’t fly to the ISS ad the HST, so if something is wrong with the shuttle you are doomed. After a few years of wrangling the mission was reestablished and flew in 2009 (JWST was expected to be up by 2011?)

  • The final servicing mission did such a good job Hubble is still fully functional 11 years later!!!

  • natural atmospheric reentry for Hubble will occur between 2028 and 2040 depending on the sun activity.

  • the Trump Administration is considering a proposal by the Sierra Nevada Corporation to use a crewed version of its Dream Chaser spacecraft to service Hubble sometime in the 2020s both as a continuation of its scientific capabilities and as insurance against any malfunctions in the to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope


OTD 1967 – Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov dies in Soyuz 1 when its parachute fails to open. He is the first human to die during a space mission.

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