It’s a terrible thing to have a spirit that is trapped, bogged down, unable to reach its true potential. Just ask NASA–the space agency knows all about it. The Mars rover Spirit has been stuck in the sand since April 23rd, when it drove backwards into a pit of soft sand and came to a dead halt. Since then, NASA engineers have been testing out escape strategies with a mock-up rover and a sandbox in California, and today they announced that they’re ready to begin a careful operation that they hope will extricate the rover. The name of the project: Free Spirit.
Spirit and its partner rover have been exploring Mars for more than five years now, but this sandy area, dubbed Troy, could be the end of the road for Spirit. “If it cannot make the great escape from this sand trap, it’s likely that this lonely spot straddling the edge of this crater might be where Spirit ends its adventures on Mars,” said Doug McCuistion, who heads the Mars exploration program [AP].
On Monday, Spirit’s handlers will send the first commands to the rover. Over days, weeks, and months they’ll order it to slowly rotate its five working wheels and inch back along the path it came in on. Efforts to extract Spirit will continue until at least February. If the rover is not free by then, a review panel may decide whether it’s worth it to keep on trying, McCuistion said [AP]. But even if Spirit is stuck for all time, it may still be able to contribute to our scientific understanding of the Red Planet by studying its soil and atmosphere.
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Image: JPL / NASA