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Filed under: Science, Space — Rick Moran @ 8:58 am

Spirit photographs silica deposits at the bottom of Gusev Crater (2007)

“The Little Rover that Could,” they call it. Designed to last 3 months, both NASA Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have passed the 5 year mark of operations on the surface, much to the delight of Mars buffs and scientists alike.

Since landing in January of 2004, the two rovers have revolutionized our knowledge of the red planet. And their ability to survive and thrive through several crisis have earned them the reputation of being plucky machines as well as intrepid explorers.

They have climbed hills, descended into craters, peered inside dozens of rocks by using their unique drilling instruments, and wandered far and wide searching for signs that would confirm the theory that Mars was once much warmer, and wetter, and thus more friendly to the idea that some kind of life may have evolved there.

They have confirmed that water once flowed in liquid form on Mars - perhaps their most significant achievement. They have also been able to determine that the Mars magnetic field was once strong enough to deflect deadly solar rays. This discovery makes the possibility that life may have arisen at one time on Mars more than a theoretical possibility. (Other clues discovered by the Mars Orbiter and the lander Phoenix have confirmed and augmented these discoveries.)

They have found no sign of any life, past or present, but that was not really part of their mission profile. Instead, they have allowed us to vicariously walk the surface of Mars as if we were part tourist, and part geologist. They have sent back a quarter of a million pictures and more than 36 gigs of data from the surface of Mars - enough to keep scientists around the world busy for a decade. And they have enriched our understanding of the forces that shaped the red planet.

Now, however, the rover Spirit may be at the end of the road. Already operating on much reduced power due to dust on its solar panels, the little rover now appears to be stuck fast in some very soft Martian soil and is unable to get any traction:

Spirit has certainly outlived expectations. It became embedded in soft soil at a site called Troy in early May, more than five years into a mission on Mars that was originally scheduled to last for three months. The rover team suspended further driving attempts with Spirit while evaluating how to free it.

The engineers are trying to figure out how to move Spirit while avoiding putting the rover’s center of gravity directly over a rock that is touching or nearly touching the machine’s underbelly. Other added tests are using a lighter-weight test rover than the one used for most of the testing this summer. A complete “dress rehearsal” test of the extrication strategy judged to hold the best chance of success is planned in the test setup at JPL before the team commands Spirit to begin driving. That test and subsequent review of its results are expected to take several weeks.

Moves by Spirit will not begin before October, according to current plans.

A dust storm that had reduced the electrical output from Spirit’s solar panels by nearly half during late August still has some lingering effects on the skies above Spirit, NASA said.

Scientists figured out that the rover was sitting directly over an exposed rock by pulling a unique maneuver and peering underneath the rover itself with its camera. With its power supply dying, scientists feel they must extricate the machine in the next few months or it will be curtains for Spirit:

“We are proceeding very cautiously and exploring all reasonable options,” said John Callas, NASA project manager for Spirit and its twin, Opportunity. “There is a very real possibility that Spirit may not be able to get out, and we want to give Spirit the very best chance.”

Callas and colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been testing ideas on a twin of Spirit at the California facility, in a pit designed to simulate the surface of Mars. It’s tricky though, because of the difference in gravity of the two planets. The rover team is also refining a detailed computer model of rover mobility, calibrated with results from testing and measurements from Mars.

“The computer modeling will allow us to connect the results from tests performed in Earth gravity with what to expect from the rover in Mars gravity,” Callas said in a statement Monday.

For a mission that originally cost $820 million - a bargain as far as planetary exploration is concerned - it is reasonable to say that we sure have gotten our money’s worth out of both rovers.

Meanwhile, the rover Opportunity keeps plugging away. Spirit’s twin recently cracked open a Mars meteor, looking for clues about how thick the Martian atmosphere might have been when the cosmic piece of junk struck the surface.

Here’s hoping they can save Spirit and help it dig itself out of trouble. If not, what a ride that little rover that could has given us.


  1. score 2 for human ingenuity! thanks rick, another great write-up.

    Comment by brooks — 9/18/2009 @ 2:30 pm

  2. *raises glass*

    To the Spirit. Here’s hoping NASA can figure out how to cheat fate one more time.

    Comment by busboy33 — 9/19/2009 @ 10:31 pm

  3. hi das ist ja mal wirklich schön, weiter so ich werde noch zum Stammleser hier ;-)

    Comment by the pick up artist lars — 9/27/2009 @ 5:11 pm

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