February 2, 2010

Mars Rover Stuck but ‘Spirit’ Lives On

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With past injuries and a tough terrain to fight against, this time, “Spirit” may be stuck for good.

In May 2009, NASA’s rover, Spirit, got caught in a soft sand pit, named Troy, named after the epic city in Homer’s The Iliad.

When NASA realized that the rover may sink even deeper into the Mars soil, they stopped Spirit’s movement and attempted to figure out methodical solutions, for instance, by creating a simulation of the situation on Earth.

In their most recent attempt, the team turned the wheels to reposition the rover, and they were able to move about 5cm (about 2 inches). Repositioning the rover small distances provides hope that the rover may reach a new patch of soil, where its wheels can obtain traction.

However, with two unresponsive wheels and hindering rocks beneath the rover, scientists and engineers at NASA believe that Spirit will not likely escape the terrain.

“The reality is that we think that the rover is probably not going to be able to move far from the current location. Two dead wheels stuck in very deep sand. It’s very hard to move it,” said Steven Squyres, the Principal Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Project.

What worries the investigators even more so than the rover’s mobility, however, is that there is no guarantee that Spirit will survive the coming Martian winter.

Once the rover goes into hibernation, most of the energy collected by the solar panels will charge its batteries. This means that, if the temperature drops below the limit the rover can withstand, Spirit may shutdown, once and for all.

Spirit, typically, is a lucky case. It has survived much longer than anyone originally imagined. In fact, due to Martian dust storms, sand pits like Troy and cold weather, experts believed that both rovers, Spirit and “Opportunity,” would survive at most six months. To everyone’s surprise, however, it has been six years since the rovers landed on Martian soil.

Since landing on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity have relayed important climate and terrain data back to scientists.

Mars is a cold, dry place today, but rovers and other spacecraft show that Mars was a very different place in the past. It was warmer and wetter, like the Earth, and would have had conditions more suitable for life.

The rovers show that Spirit’s landing site was a hot violent place with volcanic explosions, crater impacts, hot springs and steam vents. Opportunity has proven that the “water on Mars” (rippled sites that were believed to be trace of water) was actually sulfuric acid based on the chemistry of visible rocks.

Moreover, other spacecraft have determined that there are vast urban frost deposits beneath Mars’ surface, especially in the higher altitudes.

“We are trying to understand whether we are alone in this universe,” said Squyres.

Of course, as current Mars is intolerable for living, it is not likely that Martians exist today. The questions of whether life once existed on this red planet and whether Mars can predict the future of the Earth, however, may be answered with more missions in the same “spirit” of exploration.

Original Author: Hyeon Soh