Mars Rover Spirit Shows Signs of Age, Including Senior Moments

By Eliza Strickland | April 22, 2009 11:01 am

Mars Rover SpiritAt the ripe old age of five the Mars rover Spirit is starting to show signs of its age, and NASA scientists are beginning to wonder how much longer it can continue to roll across the Red Planet. Over the past few weeks the rover once ignored its morning wake-up call and has unexpectedly rebooted its computer several times. Spirit has also occasionally failed to record its activities in its memory drive, the robotic equivalent of “senior moments.”

John Callas, project manager for the Mars rovers, says scientists don’t yet have an explanation for these glitches, but adds that the incidents suggest that Spirit is getting erratic. Or maybe just old…. “I don’t think anyone can tell you how these rovers will eventually end on Mars,” Callas said. “Will they gradually degrade until their mechanical functionality goes or will they have a catastrophic end, where something inside the rover breaks?” [Washington Post

Spirit is currently exploring a plateau called Home Plate. It’s driving backwards, as usual, since it lost the use of one front wheel in 2006. Researchers hope the recent glitches were just transitory problems, but say that even if the incidents signal larger problems with Spirit’s computer systems, they’ll try to find work-arounds to keep the rover rolling as long as possible. They also note that the two rovers’ five-year anniversary on Mars marked a engineering triumph, as their mission was originally scheduled to last only 90 days.

Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, is in considerably better health, and has embarked on an ambitious 7-mile trek to the Endeavour crater. But both rovers may be tested in the coming months, as the Martian summers sometimes bring huge dust storms that prevent light from reaching the rovers’ all-important solar panels. A storm in July 2007, nearly one Martian year ago, blocked 99 percent of the rovers’ sunlight. The storms don’t happen every year, but when they do, they start about this time…. [Mission controllers] are keeping an eye on the warming Martian weather, ready to tell the rovers to rest in advance of a dust storm [Popular Science].

Related Content:
80beats: Mars Rover’s Temporary “Amnesia” and Paralysis Puzzle NASA
80beats: The Little Rovers That Could Mark Their Fifth Anniversary on Mars
80beats: More Trouble on Mars: Spirit Rover Imperiled by Dust Storms

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MORE ABOUT: Mars, Mars rovers, NASA, robots
  • Steven Carter

    Its remarkable that these two pieces of engineering and computer programming are still viable. It tells us that when engineers, computer programmers and supporting staff put their combined talents together with a clear goal they can solve problems not even imagined when the Rovers initially landed on Mars over 5 years ago. If we can achieve this level of success working on two mechanisms located millions of miles away we can surely do the same here when it comes to the economy, energy and health care. Perhaps we need to use a similar model to that which NASA uses to tackle the multiple problems presented to them by the Rovers to solve our problems here.

  • Paul Cheung

    It is nice to know I am not the only one to get senior moments. Anyway I found an old email from an ex-colleague, whose hobby and interests were in military tanks. We met when we both worked for a local govenment depart. He in End-User-Acceptance testing and myself in IT Software Defects resolution. Reading through the email once again it dawns on me that there a lot of the technology used to designed battle tanks, such as caterpiller tanks tracks and slopping armour that with modern lightweight materials and meta-materials could be adapted for off world exploration as could the wheel designs used in the first world war to move and support heavy cannons in differing hostile battlefields


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