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1 Jamie: So how do you propose to kill us, you Martian fiends?
2 Martian 1: With a means of your own devising. Too long has humanity been littering Mars with your so-called space probes!
3 Adam: Wait, it's 1947. How do they know about Earth's space probes?
4 Martian 1: Bring forth the Mars Rover with Rock Abrasion Tool!!
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The Mars Rover was first seen way back in strip #370. Back then that strip was topical, as the real life NASA Mars rover Spirit had just experienced difficulties and a two-day communication blackout, which at the time was feared might be the premature end of its mission.
That was January, 2004. Over six and a half years ago. Spirit landed on Mars on 4 January, 2004. It was designed for a mission lasting 90 Martian days (or sols), or a bit over 92 Earth days. NASA lost communication with Spirit on 21 January, 2004, just 17 days into the mission. Through the efforts of NASA engineers, communication was re-established on 24 January and Spirit rebooted. Over the next few days, the engineers carried out remote diagnosis of software problems on board Spirit. This was when strip #370 appeared - when it was unclear whether Spirit would be able to resume its mission.
As it turned out, Spirit's memory problems were fixed and the rover resumed normal operation on 6 February, 2004. It celebrated by performing the first ever controlled grind of a rock on Mars, using its specially designed Rock Abrasion Tool. Spirit went on to exceed its planned 90-sol mission and continue travelling, performing experiments, taking pictures, and sending valuable scientific information back to Earth for the next five years.
In May, 2009, Spirit became stuck in some loose Martian soil, and, try as they might, mission engineers could not drive the rover's wheels in a manner which could get the rover moving again. The efforts to get Spirit moving again lasted for the remainder of 2009. Finally, on 26 January, 2010, more than six years after it landed on Mars, and after a period 24 times as long as its planned mission length, NASA declared Spirit would not move again, and would continue operating only as a stationary observation platform.
On March 22, 2010, Spirit stopped transmitting. No word has been heard from the rover since. However, NASA has not given up on the rover, and continues transmitting diagnostic commands every day. It is currently winter on Mars where Spirit is, and there is a reasonable expectation that Spirit may have gone into a hibernation mode to conserve energy, and will wake up again in the spring as it receives more sunlight on its solar panels. If this happens, it will respond to the diagnostic commands and communication will be re-established. We can only wait and see.
But Spirit wasn't the only part of the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover Mission. The mission had two Mars rovers. Spirit's twin rover, Opportunity, landed on Mars 21 days after Spirit, on 25 January, 2004.
And, as of today, Opportunity is still fully operational.
It continues to travel across the surface of Mars, seeing new and previously unexplored Martian terrain, investigating the soil and rocks, taking pictures, making measurements, and communicating all of this valuable information back to us on Earth. For the past two Earth years it has been driving, slowly, towards the large crater known as Endeavour, making scientific measurements along the way. Barring disaster, it should reach Endeavour some time in the next few months.
90 days NASA designed these rovers to work for. Opportunity is still going strong after close to seven years. You can follow its progress and cheer it on here.
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