Concept art of Curiosity on Mars
With any luck, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity will land successfully in August and trundle off across the surface of the Red Planet. Headlines will laud the brave little robot travelling so far from home. But behind Curiosity, and its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, is a team of human operators.
Over at Popular Science, Rebecca Boyle looks into the experiences of the rover drivers.
Scott Maxwell stared at his bedroom ceiling in the hours after his first drive, restless with excitement. All systems were go, and he’d sent the commands by the time he left the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now he was supposed to sleep before his next shift on Mars time. But he knew that on the fourth planet from the sun, the Spirit rover’s wheels had started to move.
Spirit just can’t help itself. Even stuck in a sand trap from which it will never escape, the Mars rover finds clues that reveal more about the nature of Mars and the water cycle on the Red Planet.
It was earlier this year that NASA gave up on freeing Spirit: With a broken wheel, the rover simply could not extricate itself from the loose terrain that ensnares it. But as the rover team drove Spirit back and forth, it dug deeper and deeper into the Martian ground. Says team member Ray Arvidson:
“We’re driving backwards, the right front wheel doesn’t work, so wherever we went we had to drag it along. It’s like pushing a shopping cart with a bad front wheel. You don’t push it, you pull it, but the wheel has torque.” [Discovery News]
It’s hard to say goodbye to old friends. We’ve known since the springtime that NASA’s Spirit rover, which roamed the surface of Mars for more than six years, was probably doomed to a frozen death. But in the last week, NASA has repeatedly called the rover, hoping that the endurance explorer somehow managed to conserve enough power during the martian winter to respond.
So far, no luck. Spirit has not phoned home.
Spirit’s been on Mars since January 2004 and already survived previous winters, which run from May through November. With sunlight reaching Spirit at a weak angle, the rover hibernates and uses the scant solar power to recharge batteries and heat itself to –40 degrees [Scientific American].
But this winter it could not. With a wheel caught in the loose martian terrain, Spirit could not drive to an opportune position to capture some sunlight. As a result, the rover probably dropped to -67 degrees during the brutal winter on the red planet, too cold for its heaters or machinery to function.
After more than six years of exploring the Red Planet, the Mars rover Spirit will rove no more. The robotic adventurer is mired in a sand bed, and NASA has officially given up on trying to extricate it.
While it will continue to operate as a “stationary research platform” for the time being, there’s no denying that the rover’s swashbuckling days are over. No longer will Spirit spot an interesting landmark in the distance and gamely trek towards it, with the possibility of a fresh scientific discovery around every corner and under every rock. This photo gallery is a well-deserved eulogy for Spirit, in which we’ll survey its travels and achievements.
In 2003, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, on a three-month mission to investigate Martian terrain and atmosphere on opposite sides of the planet. The solar-powered rovers surpassed NASA’s wildest dreams, extending their missions by nearly 25 times their anticipated lengths.
Since landing on Mars in January 2004, Spirit has snapped more than 127,000 pictures. The robot probed beneath the worn surface of Mars, analyzing the microstructure of rocks and soil with a sophisticated array of instruments: spectrometers, microscopic imagers, and other tools. Spirit has also gathered strong evidence that water once flowed on the Martian surface, which could have created a hospitable environment for microbial life.
Spirit and its twin rover (which is still traveling on) will be replaced by more advanced machines that will roll onto the Martian soil in the coming decades. But Spirit will be remembered long after its operating system flickers off for good. Like a robotic Neil Armstrong, the rover has earned its place in the space explorers’ hall of heroes.
All text by Aline Reynolds. Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell
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.