After ten months of trying to extricate the Mars rover Spirit from a sandy patch on the Red Planet, NASA has finally given up. The space agency said Tuesday that Spirit will no longer be a fully mobile robot, roving over an alien planet. It will instead be a stationary science platform–which means a sedentary life for the robot geologist [that] has taken thousands of images and found evidence in Mars’ rocks of a wetter, warmer past [BBC].
Ten months ago, as Spirit was driving south beside the western edge of a low plateau called Home Plate, its wheels broke through a crusty surface and churned into soft sand hidden underneath [NASA]. The rover has been stuck there ever since, and now only four of its six wheels are functioning. Since all the maneuvers that the NASA instructed the rover to try have failed to free it, the sandpit known as “Troy” will be Spirit’s final resting place.
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.
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].
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.
80beats: With a Sandbox and a Rover Replica, Working to Free the Stuck Mars Rover
80beats: Will This Mars Rover Ever Rove Again? Spirit Gets Stuck in the Sand
80beats: Mars Rover Spirit Shows Signs of Age, Including Senior Moments
80beats: The Little Rovers That Could Mark Their Fifth Anniversary on Mars
Image: JPL / NASA
The Mars rover Opportunity, an interloper on the Martian soil, has discovered another piece of metal that isn’t native to the planet: a boulder-sized iron meteorite that spun out of the sky and crashed into the planet sometime in the distant past. While the rock isn’t the first iron meteorite spotted on Mars (the two Mars rovers’ previous discoveries make this the fourth), it is the largest, measuring about 2 feet wide and 1 foot high. Researchers hope that studying the mega-meteorite will provide clues to the atmosphere and landscape that it encountered when it arrived on Mars.
Opportunity spotted the out-of-place object on July 18 and snapped a picture of it, but the rover was on its way towards a distant crater and didn’t stop. When NASA scientists saw the photographs, however, they ordered the rover to reverse course and head for the rock. “When you’re driving around on relatively smooth, flat, boring plains for a long time, anything that looks like a decent-sized rock says, ‘Come get me!’” says team member Albert Yen, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory [New Scientist].
How do you extract a vehicle from a sand trap when the operation has to happen remotely from a distance of 174 million miles? That’s the question that NASA scientists are attempting to answer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where engineers are working on a plan for how to get the Mars rover Spirit moving again. The rover has been stuck, up to its hubcaps in sand, since April 23rd when it drove backwards into an area now called “Troy.”
To test strategies for how to get the rover unstuck, scientists built a sandbox that resembles that patch of Martian terrain, and then drove a rover replica into it. Spirit project manager John Callas explains that the scientists carefully mixed sand, pottery clay, and a light material called diatomaceous earth to imitate the dirt on Mars. While the ingredients do not match the Martian soil’s chemistry, the mixture has a similar strength. “It is representative of the trouble Spirit is in … in very, very fluffy soil with very little load bearing strength,” Dr Callas said. “It’s like talcum powder, but not as fine grained. It clings to the wheels and they lose traction.” Adding to their problems, the rover is tilted on a 12-degree slope [The Age].
For two years, the Mars rover Opportunity explored the Victoria crater and dutifully sent back reports on the sedimentary rock layers on display in the crater walls and the scattering of pebbles on the sunken floor. Now, the results of that comprehensive survey have been compiled and compared to data gleaned from Opportunity’s exploration of two smaller craters several miles away. The study shows that shifting sand dunes on ancient Mars once concealed a network of underground water spread across an area the size of Oklahoma…. “Given that we’ve seen the same stuff at places that are miles apart, it is a reasonable conjecture that those processes operated over most of this region” [National Geographic News], says lead researcher Steve Squyres.
The rover had previously explored the Eagle and Endurance craters, about 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) away from Victoria. Mission scientists chose Victoria as the next crater to explore because “it was the biggest crater we could possibly find,” said Steve Squyres…. The science team hoped that Victoria’s depth — of about 400 feet (125 meters) — might shed more light on the geology of the Meridiani Planum region [LiveScience]. Like a child in a fairy tale following a trail of pebbles, Opportunity also studied the small, round rocks made of the mineral hematite as it trundled towards the Victoria crater in 2006.
The 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].
At 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]
NASA has proposed sending both an orbiter and a robotic explorer to Mars in the next decade to follow up on the recent report that Mars “hotspots” emit plumes of methane gas, which could be produced by either geothermal reactions or by deeply buried bacteria that breathe out methane as a waste product. That exciting phenomenon, which is still being debated by Mars experts, was observed by researchers using ground-based telescopes to measure seasonal fluctuations of gases on the planet. Researchers say closer observations would have a much better chance of determining whether the methane does signal the ultimate prize: extraterrestrial life.
NASA officials sketched out their proposal at a meeting of Mars scientists, but stressed that plans could change. The current idea is to launch the Mars Science Orbiter in 2016 followed by a exobiology lander or rover mission launched during a particularly juicy launch window in 2018 (the best since the Spirit and Opportunity rovers)…. The plan would also follow a natural progression: MSO would map the methane; the lander or rover would go after it with a suite of astrobiological instruments [Nature blog].