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It's been 10 years since NASA's Spirit rover landed on Mars, kicking off a decade of continuous robotic operations on the Red Planet's surface. And even though Spirit gave up the ghost three years ago, the hardy machine still serves as an inspiration.
Cushioned by airbags, the six-wheeled, golf-cart-sized rover settled in Gusev Crater at 11:35 p.m. ET on Jan. 3, 2004. Among the millions who followed the landing coverage was Bekah Sosland, a 14-year-old eighth-grader in Fredericksburg, Texas. A TV animation that aired in her classroom showed the unorthodox landing procedure that was used by Spirit — and by its twin rover, Opportunity, which touched down three weeks later.
"I remember I was talking with friends, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed this thing bouncing and rolling on a red surface," Sosland said in a NASA online retrospective published Friday. "I watched as it stopped and opened up, and it had this rover inside."
The sight amazed her. "Gears started turning in my head that day about engineering and space — thinking about a career," she said.
Sosland eventually earned an engineering degree from the University of Texas, and this summer, she became part of the Opportunity rover's mission planning team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "I'm loving that I can be a part of this team now," she said.
Others at NASA are loving it as well. Spirit and Opportunity — known as the Mars Exploration Rovers, or MERs — were designed for primary missions lasting just 90 days. But Spirit kept plugging along until 2009, when it became mired in a Martian sand trap. It fell silent a year later. Its odometer read 4.8 miles, or 7.7 kilometers.
Opportunity has been even more of an overachiever. It's still going strong on the other side of the planet, in a region known as Meridiani Planum, with 24 miles (38.7 kilometers) of driving under its belt.
Both rovers found ample evidence that Mars was once much warmer and wetter than it is today. Spirit's biggest finds were deposits of pure silica that suggested hydrothermal vents were once active on Mars. The MER missions set the stage for even more high-powered observations by NASA's car-sized Curiosity rover, which landed in a different patch of Martian terrain last year.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Spirit and Opportunity landings, NASA has set up a "MER10" website that offers a picture gallery as well as the online ingredients for posters and a calendar. Stay tuned for more about the rover missions throughout this month.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.