Will This Mars Rover Ever Rove Again? Spirit Gets Stuck in the Sand

By Eliza Strickland | May 12, 2009 8:55 am

Spirit’s tracksThe Mars rover Spirit has driven almost 5 miles across the Martian surface, has climbed a hill as tall as the Statue of Liberty, and has generally kept on trucking for the five years since it landed on the planet, even though its mission was originally scheduled to last only 90 days. But its roving days could be over, unless its controllers at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory can extricate it from a sticky situation: Spirit is stuck in the Martian sand.

The rover was navigating around a low plateau en route to two volcanic features, Von Braun and Goddard, when it started rolling across the soft sand, and began to sink in. NASA controllers have tried a variety of maneuvers over the past few days in an attempt to extricate Spirit, but the rovers’ wheels have only sunk deeper, and are now partially buried in the sand. “This is quite serious,” said JPL’s John Callas, the project manager for Spirit and its twin, Opportunity. “Spirit is in a very difficult situation. We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again” [Los Angeles Times].

The situation is more complicated because one of the rover’s front wheels hasn’t worked for years due to an early malfunction; Spirit drives backwards everywhere it goes, tugging the broken wheel behind it. To get out of its current predicament, NASA controllers hope the other five wheels will provide enough traction. Controllers are also worried that Spirit’s chassis could soon touch rocks underneath the sand. To plan a strategy for Spirit’s escape, the controllers will attempt to replicate the rover’s plight in what is known as the “sandbox,” a lab at JPL where scientists try to simulate conditions on Mars. “We’re looking at re-landscaping the sandbox to re-create the situation,” Callas said. “We can’t send anyone to Mars, so we’re bringing Mars to Earth” [Los Angeles Times].

Lately, Spirit has been showing its age. Last month, it suffered several bouts of amnesia and other problems including sudden computer reboots and failure to wake up when called on. Though the rover has since recovered, investigators still do not know the reason for its strange behavior [AP]. While researchers clearly hope to get the rover moving again, they note that even if Spirit can’t be freed from its sand trap, it would still be able to make useful scientific observations about, for example, the composition of the soil it’s stuck in.

Related Content:
80beats: Mars Rover Spirit Shows Signs of Age, Including Senior Moments
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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
MORE ABOUT: Mars, Mars rovers, NASA, robots
  • BillyNomates

    Presumably it can still make weather observations as long as the electrics hold out ?
    Or is it in a location that mean its long-term survival is not likely ?
    They may be slow but the science that these tough little critters have been doing is very special indeed.
    Whatever happens to Spirit, its done its parents proud over the last 5 years. I hope it gets unstuck and continues.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Well, if it’s running Windows and has been for the last 5 years, that would explain all the computer problems. 😉

    I hope Spirit gets free – Oppy had the same problem a while back and they managed to get him out by driving backwards – but Spirit already does that as a matter of course.

    If they can’t get her out, I’m sure the funeral service will be touching. Everyone worried about a robotic uprising destroying humanity needs to see how the people responsible for them act towards the bots.

    It’s funny, I follow both the rovers on twitter. I realize it’s just some humans sittin around updating for them with cute messages… but at the rate we’re going, within a few generations we’ll have AI bots actually twittering from mars.. or wherever else we send these little robonauts. One thing’s for certain though – any exotic locales we get to in space, robots will have been there first, paving the way. Heck, maybe one day a return mission from mars will bring one of these little troupers back and they can be put on display, as a statue commemorating themselves.

  • p

    poor little guy

  • Paul Wieland

    To Nick:

    These rovers should stay on Mars – they deserve a memorial done by us human settlers.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    Nick, I love the name you just coined, “robonauts”. It creates a link emotionally between humans and machines. They are , after, all extensions of ourselves. These little robonauts have extended our conciousness in ways barely imagined a few years ago. Any info gained now is a bonus! It also makes a great case for the near future of unmanned space exploration. Machines are great scouts!

  • brotim

    There are many ways the rover could either get its self free or the Martian wind might do the job. As it is, the dead wheel is an anchor though…

    I think that leaving them on Mars is best. Like burial at sea!

    With the new propulsion systems, robots will soon reach some very interesting vistas, solar system wise, anyway. These rovers may have us spoiled though…

  • buddy

    i really hope the little guy survives and has many more happpy miles left in him. if not maybe he can just sit there and send us all kind of neat data and enjoy life on mars. he has earned a nice retirement

  • luke

    Paul Wieland:
    we should 100% bring the rovers back one day as a desplay for themselves! plus, we already trash our planet enough do we really need to trash mars now with the scrap metal from the bots??

    p.s. GET OUT SPIRIT (poor little girl is right they must be so scared all alone)

  • Jo

    @luke: I’m sure any recovery mission would leave more debris behind than a little rover. And … they’re not trash!

    Let them remain up there in the sky above us, waiting patiently for other explorers to join them. Far more romantic. They were created for Mars. Mars is home.

  • Hal9000

    I’m watching MER’s website on a daily basis since they landed (landing that I watched live on Nasa TV). These robonauts (I love this term) survived more than 20 times their expected lifetime, they drove distances never achieved before, etc. This is perhaps the most successful mission to Mars ever. Now that Spirit is embedded, chance is also on her side because of the recent dust cleaning event. So the smart guys at Nasa will do everything possible while the energy level is high to free Spirit out of this sand/rock trap. Go Spirit!

  • Bruce Doxey

    Certainly they could call in some desert racers to help out with the manuver to get the Rover un-stuck. It’s not rocket science you know!

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    Very sizeable and equably maintained snare directory. If the positions your net place can once in a blue moon submit your install to our directory in search free. do gazu!


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