This could be the end for our hero. NASA announced that the Spirit rover, which has been stuck in the sands of Mars since the spring, has lost operation in another wheel. If scientists can’t get it going again, that could finish off the agency’s attempt to get its plucky rover on the move once more.
Though Spirit came equipped as a six-wheeler, it lost function in one front wheel early on and has driven around the Red Planet backwards with its dead wheel in tow. But, NASA’s John Callas says, two dead wheels might be one too many. “It was questionable whether we could get a five-wheel-driving rover out,” he says. “If we have a four-wheel-driving rover [with] only one driving wheel on the right-hand side … then extracting the rover from its current embedded location is unlikely” [New Scientist].
NASA has kept an online record of its attempts to free Spirit from the sand trap, which involved many months of experimenting with spare rovers in a California lab to simulate Spirit’s escape; only in November did NASA scientists begin trying to drive the real rover out of danger. But the new wheel malfunction soon brought the escape attempt to a halt. Scientists aren’t sure what’s causing the wheel failure—it could be a failed motor, a jammed gearbox, or a rock wedged in there, none of which would be easy to fix. “Mars does not owe us a solution to this problem,” laments rover driver Scott Maxwell, “and there might not be one” [Sky & Telescope].
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has about six months to sever the sand’s hold on Spirit before the winter rolls in. If it hasn’t budged by then, the rover could shut down permanently, because the current position of its solar arrays wouldn’t allow it to capture enough of the sparse winter sunlight to power its internal heaters. But even if the hardy traveler never moves another foot, it could still add to its sterling scientific reputation in its final months. The area where it’s stuck has shown even more signs of Martian water. The evidence came from sand the rover dug up as its stuck wheel spun, broke through a thin rocky crust and created a tiny crater about 5 feet wide and less than 10 inches deep. The sand, clearly visible to scientists in photographs taken with the rover’s own camera, is filled with sulfates — chemicals that had formed in water [San Francisco Chronicle].
Meanwhile, the possible target for a future Mars rover mission—the mysterious methane that some believe could be created by microorganisms—is at the very least created on the planet and not brought by meteors, a new study says. All the meteors that strike Mars would fall far short of the task, the scientists say. They found that just 10kg of methane is produced from meteors each year, in contrast to the 100-300 tonnes that must be produced to keep the atmospheric concentration at its current levels [BBC News].
And, on the plus side, last week’s partial radio blackout of Mars caused by orbiters on the fritz appears to be over.
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