Spirit is willing, but the metal is weak

By Phil Plait | January 27, 2010 10:30 am

spiritIn a press conference yesterday, NASA and JPL scientists announced that the Mars rover Spirit is stuck. The little-spaceprobe-that-could has been trapped in the sand near a crater called Troy for almost a year now, and for that time has been doing little or no science; instead, engineers have been trying to figure out how to get the rover unstuck. After all that time, NASA has decided to throw in the towel. Martian winter is coming for Spirit, and they are now focusing on getting it positioned so that it can survive the coming drop in temperature.

Three notes:

1) This doesn’t mean Spirit is dead! If they are able to get it set up to survive the winter (mainly by tilting it toward the Sun so the solar panels can collect energy) then once it’s revived it will still be able to do plenty of science from where it is. After all, it’s a laboratory sitting on another world. I imagine there’s lots of stuff the scientists can do with it.

2) Emily Lakdawalla, as usual, has the details of all this on The Planetary Society blog, including some evidence-based speculation that it’s NASA calling the shots here and not JPL, which controls the rover.

3) We have to remember something rather important: when the two rovers (Opportunity is the other, which is still running fine on the other side of the planet) landed on Mars, they had a planned operational lifetime of 90 days.

That was in January 2004.

In other words, Spirit has been on Mars for over 2200 days, and even counting when it first got stuck, it still ran well for more than 20 times its nominal lifespan. Cars these days have a standard warranty for 7 years; how’d you like yours to run for 140 years?

So for me, while this news is not great, it has to be put in context: Spirit is one of the most successful NASA missions of all time. And its sister, Opportunity, is still running like a champ. I hope I’ll be doing as well when I’m 1400 years old.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Mars, Spirit

Comments (42)

  1. Sad, but satisfying news. Especially as you point out, it had such a short expected lifespan. Can’t wait for the Mars Lab to trundle around!

  2. Joe Alvord

    Quick…..Lets send a rescue mission!

  3. Tom K.

    To bad the ground doesn’t firm up with frost in the Winter like it does here in Michigan. Always a good time to take heavy load of firewood into the back yard.

  4. Gary Ansorge

    Phil:

    I recall an instance years ago where a computer was used to translate from English “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” into Russian and then back again. It became “The Vodka is strong but the meat is rotten”.

    I wonder how a double translation of YOUR header would resolve?

    It’s fun to imagine an astronaut digging out Spirits stuck tires and putting a couple of pieces of metal under them. Or maybe he’d just call the local auto club,,,

    Gary 7

  5. Robert E

    @Gary:
    Yahoo! Babel fish comes up with the rather disappointingly accurate “Spirit is willingly ready, but metal is weak”

  6. Douglas Troy

    Phil, I wouldn’t want to see you at the, very ripe, old age of 1400 … I have this vision of a dried up prune, with mold … and a NASA cap.

    I’m just say’in.

    Ew.

  7. D-Dave

    Every time I see one of these posts that remind us that they’re over two thousaaaaaaand days into this 90-day mission I just want to go “W00t! Go Rovers!!”

    So I will.

    “W00T! Go Rovers!”

    I really hope Spirit can safely bunker down and have a better year next time!

  8. Huron

    Yesterday, we found out that Spirit’s roving days were over.

    Today, we learn that humans will be stuck in LEO for a very long time to come:

    http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/space/os-no-moon-for-nasa-20100126,0,2770904.story

    “There will be no lunar landers, no moon bases, no Constellation program at all.

    In their place, according to White House insiders, agency officials, industry executives and congressional sources familiar with Obama’s long-awaited plans for the space agency, NASA will look at developing a new “heavy-lift” rocket that one day will take humans and robots to explore beyond low Earth orbit. But that day will be years — possibly even a decade or more — away.

    In the meantime, the White House will direct NASA to concentrate on Earth-science projects — principally, researching and monitoring climate change — and on a new technology research and development program that will one day make human exploration of asteroids and the inner solar system possible.”

  9. Mike

    Hahaha.. nice Futurama reference in the title. :)

    The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is bruised and spongy!

  10. Cathy W

    Here’s to Spirit! Even if this is it, the mission was a success beyond anyone’s wildest fever-dreams.

    And here’s to Opportunity! May the Martian soil always be firm beneath your wheels, and the sun shine bright on your solar panels. I have this dream that you’ll come rolling up to greet the first humans to set foot on the planet…

    And here’s to all the engineers and scientists here on Earth who made it possible for a 90-day mission to still be running 2200 days later. Y’all done good.

  11. DrFlimmer

    @ Douglas Troy

    I’m wondering, if in 1400 years someone will still know “NASA” (ok, they put a man on the moon, but hey… a man on the moon may look in 1400 years like the invention of the wheel – who did it?). Still, a “nice” picture :D

  12. amstrad

    ” Cars these days have a standard warranty for 7 years; how’d you like yours to run for 140 years?”

    And with no preventative maintenance.

  13. Jenkins

    Phil, where’s your post on Obama completely destroying the constellation program and any future manned missions to the moon and mars? This is the change you believe in, right?

  14. FLAnatic

    They should have lowered the planned operational lifetime to 10 days. I would have been 9 times more impressed right now.

  15. Lukester

    “Phil, where’s your post on Obama completely destroying the constellation program and any future manned missions to the moon and mars? This is the change you believe in, right?”

    Seconded.

  16. Chris

    Is that Earth days or Martian days?

  17. Those little rovers are phenomenal. To have lasted a combined 12 years as opposed to the planned 180 days is just mind boggling. Hats off to all the people who were and are involved with the program. I look forward to more science from those two.

    Perhaps, technology willing, one day in the future we can bring them back to put them into a museum. I’d love to see Hubble have the same fate… I guess I’m as sentimental about these machines as their creators for some reason!

    To say they’re one of NASA’s most successful missions is almost an understatement! :D

  18. Nigel Depledge

    Chris (17) said:
    Well, aside from the fact that you could do the math for yourself (January ’04 – January ’10 is how many Earth days?), NASA (and Phil) always referred to Martian “days” as “Sols” to avoid any confusion.

  19. Nigel Depledge

    Anyhow…

    Yay Spirit!

    And, Opportunity, still roving!

  20. Just thought I should point out that Spirit has not been “doing little or no science” at Troy. In fact, of all the places to get stuck, Spirit picked a great one. The soil has some of the highest sulfur content we’ve seen on Mars, and being forced to sit still has allowed the team to characterize that soil with the cameras and spectrometers to a degree of detail that they would never get if there was an option to keep driving.

    And of course, as Squyres said yesterday, there is still a lot of science to be done as a stationary lander.

  21. Craig

    If you haven’t seen the National Geographic special “Five Years on Mars”, do your best to watch it. It was an awesome science doc. I watch a lot of space and science specials and most are quite similar. While unique in that all the computer animations involved (there were a lot) were built using actual images collected by the rovers, this program was superior in that it told the story of Spirit and Opportunity using the voices of the people at JPL who are working on the project. The passion of those working on the project positively leapt off the screen. Nothing I’ve seen has highlighted the pure *humanity* of the rover missions like that special.

  22. So sad. The poor thing is stuck and may not survive the winter.
    I hope the thing survives to teach us more about the red planet even if it is stuck and immobile.

  23. Kevin F.

    “Is that Earth days or Martian days?”

    RAMPANT issue in almost all rover articles everywhere is saying “year” and not specifying Martian or Earth years.

  24. Pi-needles

    Didn’t they have RAA insurance? Quick send the yellow van! ;-)

  25. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Saw an on-line article about this on the last carnival of space blog.

    Sad to hear Spirit is bogged down but still a great innings for the amazing little MER – what an astounding success its been even if it’s journey roaming across the russet sands of Mars is over now.

    Oh & I’m not writing it off yet – there were times even quite early in the mission when we thought we may have lost Spirit & yet the rover came back and surprised us. Wondeful that’s its running at all today, if it is the end though :

    Vale Spirit & thankyou for sharing your journey with us.

  26. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ 14 Jenkins & 16. Lukester Says:

    “Phil, where’s your post on Obama completely destroying the constellation program and any future manned missions to the moon and mars? This is the change you believe in, right?” Seconded.

    It hasn’t taken him long – its just here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/01/27/rumor-obama-to-axe-ares-and-constellation/

    Plus its not true – or at least not yet -so far we’re just going on rumour with nothing definite announced. You could be, & I really hope you are, wrong.

    Furthermore, on a partisan note can I ask if you really think a McCain-Palin presidency would have done any better for NASA & space exploration given that the old guy couldn’t tell the difference between a planetarium and an overhead projector and the “hockey Mom” was (& still is) an anti-intellectual, anti-science Creationist whackjob? :roll:

    PS. The Spirit article online I saw the other night *might* have been this one :

    http://thespacewriter.com/wp/2010/01/26/mars-spirit-rove-aint-dead-yet/

    Or another one, not entirely sure now. I commented there as StevoR but can’t see comments now.

  27. John Paradox

    Spirit hasn’t given up the ghost yet!!

    J/P=?

  28. QuietDesperation

    Fire the explosive bolts.

    There is not a problem in the ‘verse that cannot be solved by firing the explosive bolts.

  29. Keegan

    I’m sure those aliens that live in the face of mars will save Spirit!

    No but seriously, Spirit has had a spectacular run and if it doesn’t make it through the winter then hey, maybe someday we’ll retrieve it by hand. Keep on roving Opportunity! Do your sister proud.

  30. Rob Jase

    Ah fr Pete’s sake, get a New Englander to send it the commands on how to get unstuck.

    We have to deal with the same thing every winter.

  31. Noo, poor Spirit. I like that little buggy.

  32. Erik

    Sounds like an abysmal engineering failure to me. They have demonstrated that their project budget was something like 20x what it needed to be to perform the 90-day mission.

    Obviously it doesn’t scale linearly, but if the original budget was based on a 90-day mission and they ended up with a 2200 day mission then someone massively overdesigned these things.

  33. fred edison

    I will not be one of those who laments the passing of Spirit. I’m one of those who celebrates its accomplishments, and its out of this world ability to remain “alive” in an inhospitable environment without a support truck standing by. Spirit has performed like an absolute champ. This little robot has proven, time and time again, to be an amazing piece of human engineered robotic machinery. It has been a fantastic and valuable success. Spirit has spent a number of hard Martian seasons, traveled many miles over difficult terrain, faced the perils of dust covered solar panels. Each inch presented a challenge, each day was uncertain. Through all these obstacles, it has managed to send back loads of data which gave us incredible insights and clues as to what makes Mars tick. But the best part is that it’s still alive, and still ready to do what it can as long as it can. I will not give up until it gives up.

    We can’t bring the Hubble Space Telescope back to Earth, unfortunately. We are fairly certain of what will become of the space observatory. I sincerely hope that if men ever make it to Mars, they somehow have a chance to bring those two guys back home. It would be a form of final tribute of an idea made into reality, of humans exploring a distant red planet vicariously through a distant and magnificent machine.

  34. HombreMoleculos

    Put the blame on Howard Wolowitz.

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