As far as space missions go, you couldn’t find a better epic tale than that of Mars Expedition Rover Spirit. Designed to last 3 months, roved for six years; lost the use of a wheel, turned it into a nifty trench-digging tool; nearly died, came back to life; had memory problems, shrugged them off… the list could go on for ever. However, it’s now official, this is one challenge the little wheeled warrior couldn’t beat; she’s stuck in the sand and there’s nowhere to go.
Mars Rover Spirit is now “Mars Base Spirit.”
Naturally when NASA broke the news that Spirit was going to remain stuck in a hole in Gusev crater for the rest of her days, we weren’t surprised, but everyone was sad. That little robot has captivated the world with all her escapades, and although she’s a machine, we’ve all personified Spirit. She’s the little rover that could.
And she‘s a girl, obviously.
But wait! Spirit is not dead quite yet. Spirit will hopefully become a stationary science probe if she makes it through winter (but that’s a big “if”). Once the Sun dips closer to the horizon during the winter months, less sunlight will hit the rover’s solar panels. Depending on how much energy Spirit has in reserves and how much dust coats the panels (making them less efficient at collecting the dwindling light), we could be looking at the end of the mission all together. Assuming she makes it through till spring, it’s conceivable that Spirit can be used as a weather outpost and, intriguingly, a tracking beacon to measure Mars’ wobble. The tiny wobble could lead scientists to understand the interior of the planet.
“We think we can actually determine whether the core of Mars is liquid or molten,” said Cornell University’s Steve Squyres, the lead scientist of the Mars rover program. “There’s compelling evidence that Mars once had a pretty powerful internally generated magnetic field and that probably required a core of iron that was liquid.”
If Spirit can make it through the winter and help NASA understand the interior of Mars, that would be the icing on the cake. Although Spirit may not be dominating the surface of Mars like her sister rover Opportunity (who’s notched up over 12 km so far and still going strong), perhaps she can dominate the interior of Mars by remaining stationary in the sand.
This is hardly surprising if we consider that the lifespan of Spirit should have been 3 months, the fact that it has lasted 69 months (so far) is nothing short of miraculous. In rover-mission-lifetime years, doesn’t that make Spirit and her twin sister Opportunity 1380 years old? (I decided that a “lifetime” is 60 years, in case you were wondering.) Perhaps that’s not how it works, but for NASA to build a robot that has lived 23 times longer than the mission specified is pretty damn impressive. No wonder Spirit is losing her memory. I’m surprised she hasn’t lost the will to live.
Spirit has lost the use of one of her wheels and remains stuck in the sand… so she is showing her age. But still, 23× longer than planned? When I’m 1380 years old, I hope I’m only suffering amnesia every now and again.
A little help here? Spirit has driven into soft ground, burying her wheels halfway. Engineers are working plans to extricate her. –A distress tweet from @MarsRovers
Now, she’s stuck in the Martian dirt after slipping backwards down a slope during a series of backward drives around a plateau called “Home Plate.”
“Spirit is in a very difficult situation,” JPL project manager John Callas said. “We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again. Meanwhile, we are using Spirit’s scientific instruments to learn more about the physical properties of the soil that is giving us trouble.”
At JPL, a team have been assembled to try to find a solution to the problem with a model of the situation here on Earth. Unfortunately the wheels are stuck fast, half-buried, and scientists are increasingly worried that any attempts to free the struggling rover could make matters worse. The concern is for the chassis under the robot. Should it make contact with the rocks underneath, it would effectively beach itself, completely losing traction that could be used to free the wheels. In short, the situation is not good, but NASA is working overtime to find ways to get the rover on the road once more.
Fortunately, wind has helped the ailing rover recently, clearing excess dust off the solar panels, giving Spirit a much needed energy boost, but will it be enough to get her out of this difficult situation? If there’s a way, Spirit will find it, as let’s face it, she’s lived through a lot of hard knocks…
By far the biggest difficulty for robotic operations on the Martian surface are Sun-blocking dust storms. Not only do red-tinted dust clouds block the Sun from penetrating the atmosphere, the dust grains fall on solar panels, creating a layer of dusty sunscreen, reducing the amount of light falling on the photovoltaic cells. This is a special problem for long-term missions on the Red Planet. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been pottering around in the Martian regolith for over five years, mission planners had little idea their tough explorers would live much beyond their designed 3 month lifespan; long-term accumulation of dust was of no concern… until now. Continue reading “A Windy Day on Mars Gives Spirit an Energy Boost”
Mars dust is a big problem for technology; it’s very fine, abrasive and sticks to everything. Airborne dust has been blamed for accelerating Phoenix’s death, and the hardy Mars Exploration Rover Spirit looks like it has finally met its match. The critical issue here is a build-up of the red powder over the surface of the energy-collecting solar panels our robotic explorers depend on to power their experiments and movement over the Martian terrain. If solar cells cannot receive light, electricity cannot be generated, hastening the end of of Phoenix, and possibly one of the rover twins… Continue reading “Phoenix is Dead, Spirit is Failing”