January 22, 2010

Spirit's Rocky Situation

Spirit, one of the Mars Exploration Rovers, is in a very rocky situation. Since April 2009, the rover has been embedded in a patch of rocky Martian soil. The dark and crusty ground, captured in the picture above by Spirit before its current predicament, broke through under the rover's wheels to reveal loose sandy soil, which trapped the wheels. Furthermore, when Spirit photographed its undercarriage (image at right) with its robotic arm, it revealed a rock potentially touching the robot.

Since then, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who manage the rovers, have been working to extract the rover from the sandy trap they now call "Troy." They are using a sandbox (image at left), filling it with a mixture they have created that may help replicate the conditions Spirit is facing on Mars. Since then, they have placed test rovers in the sandbox to attempt some movements that could help Spirit get free. I personally was able to see the engineers working with one of the test rovers in the sand box during my trip to JPL this July, as part of the Summer Science Program. The engineers have sent a number of maneuvers for the rover, but none of them so far has been able to lead to a significant improvement.

Unfortunately, the team working on the rover is running out of possible maneuvers they can attempt, and many now believe that Spirit may be permanently stuck in its current location. Fortunately, there are many interesting targets to study where Spirit has been stuck. But the Martian winter is soon coming, and the Sun is reaching lower in the Martian sky. If stuck in its current location, Spirit will have to position itself to get the optimal amount of sunshine on its solar panels, which will power the heating necessary for the onboard equipment to survive the cold Martian winter.

Despite its unsure future, Spirit has still lasted longer than anyone could have hoped. It arrived on Mars in January 2004, and has far surpassed its 3 month predicted life span on Mars. If you want to keep updated about the latest developments in freeing Spirit, you can visit the JPL's blog about the effort, Free Spirit.

Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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