This past Sunday was the sixth anniversary of the NASA rover Spirit’s landing on Mars and the beginning of its adventures on the red planet. However, this anniversary is shaping up to be its last. As we’ve previously covered here at DISCOVER, Spirit has gotten itself into a jam.
A sand trap and balky wheels are challenges to Spirit’s mobility that could prevent NASA’s rover team from using a key survival strategy for the rover. The team may not be able to position the robot’s solar panels to tilt toward the sun to collect power for heat to survive the severe Martian winter [NASA]. The rover has been stuck in the Martian sand for nine months with only four of its six wheels functioning. Now, NASA says the rover may run out of power and shut down by May.
NASA is close to throwing in the towel on its attempts to extract Spirit from its rut, so the sandpit known as “Troy” may be Spirit’s final resting place. To conserve power, the rescue operation may come to a halt this month. Unless Sprit can angle its solar arrays to capture the maximum possible sunlight, it faces the prospect of freezing to death when winter arrives in five months, since it won’t be able to power the internal heaters which protect its electronics. NASA explains that the current tilt is “nearly five degrees toward the south”, which is “unfavorable because the winter sun crosses low in the northern sky” [Register].
Whether or not Spirit can break free of the sand trap, the rover has already exceeded expectations with its research on Mars’ environment–it was initially scheduled to perform only a 90-day mission. In fact, until it kicks the bucket, Spirit can keep gathering data while bogged down in the sand. NASA scientists believe they can use the rover to gather data about the interior of Mars, Martian weather, and any interesting deposits near the rover’s wheels.
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