NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory/AP

Spirit Stuck in Martian Landscape as NASA Tries to Help

May 21, 2009 06:30 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
To free the Spirit rover, which has been stuck for more than a week, NASA is using other probes sent to Mars.

Rover Stuck En Route to New Mission

Wired magazine explained what might be happening to Spirit: "It’s up to its wheels in dirt and may be 'high-centered,' or perched on its undercarriage, spinning its wheels."

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the rovers, are using Spirit's twin rover, Opportunity, to see whether it can take a picture of its own chassis. If it can, Spirit could do the same, and that picture could help NASA learn whether the rover is stuck on top of rocks or another obstacle, explained.

In orbit around Mars is the Odyssey, and it is communicating with Spirit to gather extra data. The rovers' handlers here on Earth are also "building a replica of the Martian terrain in Pasadena," Wired reported.

The team will bury another rover on the Martian replica to figure out the best way to get Spirit out, Wired said.

"Weeks of testing are anticipated before any attempt to move Spirit," reported.

Background: Spirit, Opportunity work far longer than expected

Spirit and Opportunity were expected to explore the Red Planet for only 90 days before becoming inoperable. Spirit arrived first, on Jan. 3, 2004, and Opportunity landed 21 days later on the other side of the planet. But five years later, the rovers are still chugging. Scientists don’t know how much longer the rovers are going to survive—they could break down tomorrow or years from now.

“The American taxpayer was told three months for each rover was the prime mission plan,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for science missions, LiveScience reported. “The twins have worked almost 20 times that long. That’s an extraordinary return of investment in these challenging budgetary times.”

The rovers have been searching for any signs of past or present life on the seemingly barren planet. Spirit has come across evidence of salts in the soil, a possible sign of seawater. Opportunity has uncovered small pellet-sized deposits, called “blueberries” by NASA, “that are rich in hematite, a mineral that forms only in watery environments,” according to Time magazine. And in 2007, Spirit discovered white silica, another sign of water.

The two Mars rovers have covered more than 13 miles of the Martian surface in their years on the job, and have sent back to Earth about 36 gigabytes of data, including 250,000 images. NASA is particularly thankful that the rovers have been so prolific, as the agency had to delay the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission that was scheduled for December 2008, Agence France-Presse reports. The $2.3 billion laboratory is now slated for a 2011 launch.

Yearly operating costs for the rovers run the government about $20 million. Spirit has been exploring a plateau called Home Plate, which has a history of volcanic material, since 2006, LiveScience reported in January. Opportunity, meanwhile, is now moving toward Endeavour Crater; the trip is only seven miles, but the rover must travel around obstacles and inspect rocks along the way.

“This last winter was a squeaker for Spirit,” John Callas, NASA’s rover project manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in January. “We just made it through.”

Summers on the Red Planet have hovered around 68 degrees Fahrenheit but during the winter, the machines have had to survive temperatures of minus 148 degrees, according to AFP.

One of Spirit’s wheels was badly damaged and before it got stuck, the rover had to drive backward, “dragging its broken wheel in the soil as it moves along,” according to Time magazine. Spirit’s twin is having problems of its own: “Opportunity’s robotic arm—which carries many of its exploration tools, including its rock drill—has what amounts to an arthritic elbow. This makes it impossible for the arm to retract fully and requires the rover to toddle along with a sort of perpetual salute.”

At the end of January, one rover had a sort of "lost weekend" when Spirit inexplicably stopped communicating with NASA.

Related Topic: Space telescopes popular

As a crew finishes work on the Hubble telescope, NASA and the European Space Agency have newer telescopes in the works. The Herschel and Planck telescopes were set to launch this month from the ESA. 

Although NASA hopes Hubble will last until 2014, the agency is also building the James Webb Telescope, which will eventually be launched a million miles into space.

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