Rover Spirit
AP
A photo from Jan. 28, 2004, shows the Spirit rover stretching out its robotic arm toward a Martian boulder. More than seven years after Spirit's Mars landing, and more than a year after it went silent, NASA says it is wrapping up its efforts to revive the rover.
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updated 5/26/2011 4:08:53 PM ET 2011-05-26T20:08:53

NASA has sent its last plea to the silent rover Spirit, mired in a sand trap on the surface of Mars.

Please phone home.

With that, the space agency ended its efforts Wednesday to contact the workhorse robot geologist, which has been unresponsive for more than a year. Rather than spend time and money hanging onto faint hope, mission managers decided to turn their focus on Spirit's healthy twin Opportunity and prepare for the upcoming launch of the next Mars mega-rover.

Orbiting spacecraft will continue to passively listen for Spirit until the end of May, but the chance of a response is slim.

"There's a sadness that we have to say goodbye to Spirit," said project manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the twin rovers. But "we have to remember the great accomplishments and the blessings that we've received of having this rover operate for so long."

NASA canceled a televised farewell fete planned for next Tuesday after The Associated Press reported this week that Spirit's mission was over.

Upon hearing the news, Spirit fans commiserated on Twitter and thanked the rover for its hard work.

The solar-powered, six-wheel rovers parachuted to opposite sides of Mars in 2004 for what was supposed to be a three-month mission. Both defied expectations by surviving beyond their warranty.

Their greatest discovery was uncovering geologic evidence that Mars, now a dusty desert, was warmer and wetter billions of years ago — conditions that suggest the ancient Martian environment could have been favorable for primitive life.

Spirit had always been the unluckier of the two. Weeks after landing, engineers had to nurse it back to health after it sent back garbled data.

Unlike Opportunity, which landed in a geologic gold mine, Spirit's landing site contained few signs of past water. It had to trek toward the hills to make discoveries.

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Spirit scaled a mountain the height of the Statue of Liberty in 2005. It also was the first to record Martian dust devils as they formed, which NASA later made into movie clips.

Soon Spirit began to show its age. One of its front wheels stopped spinning in 2006, forcing it to drive backward and drag the lame wheel. In recent years, Spirit had temporary spells of failing to record data to its flash memory.

Spirit survived three Martian winters, but the hardy rover was no match for the latest cold.

In 2009, Spirit's wheels became bogged in a sand pit while driving backward. During attempts to get it unstuck, one of the back wheels stopped working — essentially turning the rover into a four-wheel drive.

NASA last year announced that Spirit would no longer rove — its odometer stuck at 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers). Instead, it conducted science experiments while stationary.

With Martian winter looming, engineers struggled to put Spirit in a favorable tilt with its solar panels pointed at the sun. With no way to power its heaters to stay warm, Spirit went into hibernation.

NASA had hoped Spirit would reawaken once spring arrived. Despite daily attempts to contact it, there was no signal.

The exact cause of Spirit's demise may never be known, but it most likely froze to death.

When the rover team gathers in California this summer, the mood will likely be that of an Irish wake, said David Lavery of NASA Headquarters.

Lavery imagined people sitting around sipping Guinness and "telling stories about when Spirit was a wee small little rover."

Mission scientist Steve Ruff of Arizona State University called Spirit's time on Mars "a Cinderella story" for overcoming early struggles.

As hard as it is to accept Spirit's fate, Ruff said he was comforted that there was time to say goodbye.

"It wasn't like an overnight death. It was a slow decline," he said. "It gave me some time to adjust to the reality that the mission was probably over or about to be, so it wasn't as painful."

With Spirit out of the picture, the rover team will shift to Opportunity, which costs about $12 million annually to operate.

Opportunity is less than 3 miles (5 kilometers) from its latest destination, Endeavour Crater. Barring any problems, it should reach the crater rim in the fall.

Opportunity could soon get some company on the Martian surface. NASA later this year will launch the car-size Curiosity, which will land at a still-to-be-determined spot on Mars in summer 2012.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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