Dec 31, 2009

Spirit Faces Uncertain Future as New Year Dawns

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Dec. 31 , 2009: This Sunday, NASA's Mars rover Spirit will mark six years of unprecedented exploration of the Red Planet. However, the upcoming Martian winter could end the roving career of the beloved, scrappy robot.

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Spirit landed on Mars at 8:35 p.m. PST on Jan. 3, 2004, and its twin Opportunity arrived at 9:05 p.m. Jan. 24, 2004. The rovers began missions intended to last for just three months but which have instead gone on for six Earth years, or 3.2 Mars years. During this time, Spirit has found evidence of a steamy and violent environment on ancient Mars that was quite different from the wet and acidic past documented by Opportunity, which has been operating successfully halfway around the planet.

Right: An artist's concept of Spirit on Mars. [more]

A sand trap and balky wheels are challenges to Spirit's mobility that could prevent NASA's rover team from using a key winter-survival strategy. The team might not be able to position the robot's solar panels to tilt toward the sun to collect power for heat to survive the severe Martian winter.


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Nine months ago, Spirit was driving across a place called "Troy" when its wheels broke through a crusty surface layer into loose sand. Efforts to escape this sand trap barely have budged the rover. The rover's inability to use all six wheels for driving has worsened the predicament. Spirit's right-front wheel quit working in 2006, and its right-rear wheel stalled a month ago. Surprisingly, the right-front wheel recently resumed working, though intermittently. Drives with four or five operating wheels have produced little progress and the latest attempts have resulted in the rover actually sinking deeper in the soil.

"The highest priority for this mission right now is to stay mobile, if that's possible," says Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He is principal investigator for the rovers.

If mobility is not possible, the next priority is to improve the rover's tilt, while Spirit is able to generate enough electricity to turn its wheels. Spirit is in the southern hemisphere of Mars, where it is autumn, and the amount of daily sunshine available for the solar-powered rover is declining. This could result in ceasing extraction activities as early as January, depending on the amount of remaining power. Spirit's tilt, nearly five degrees toward the south, is unfavorable because the winter sun crosses low in the northern sky.

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Above: The latest attempt to dislodge Spirit, pictured above, was not successful. On Dec. 26th the rover actually sunk 6 mm deeper into the sandtrap. [details]

Unless the tilt can be improved or winds lessen the gradual buildup of dust on the solar panels, the amount of sunshine available will continue to decline until May 2010. During May, or perhaps earlier, Spirit may not have enough power to remain in operation.

"At the current rate of dust accumulation, solar arrays at zero tilt would provide barely enough energy to run the survival heaters through the Mars winter solstice," says Jennifer Herman, a rover power engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The team is evaluating strategies for improving the tilt even if Spirit cannot escape the sand trap, such as trying to dig in deeper with the wheels on the north side. In February, NASA will assess Mars missions, including Spirit, for their potential science versus costs to determine how to distribute limited resources. Meanwhile, the team is planning additional research about what a stationary Spirit could accomplish as power wanes.

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"Spirit could continue significant research right where it is," says Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, deputy principal investigator for the rovers. "We can study the interior of Mars, monitor the weather and continue examining the interesting deposits uncovered by Spirit's wheels."

Right: A topographic map of Spirit's surroundings at Troy. For more information about the science Spirit is able to do there, read the Science@NASA story "Sandtrapped Rover Makes Big Discovery."

A study of the planet's interior would use radio transmissions to measure wobble of the planet's axis of rotation, which is not feasible with a mobile rover. That experiment and others might provide more and different findings from a mission that has already far exceeded expectations.

"Long-term change in the spin direction could tell us about the diameter and density of the planet's core," says William Folkner of JPL. He has been developing plans for conducting this experiment with a future, stationary Mars lander. "Short-period changes could tell us whether the core is liquid or solid."

Spirit may be stuck and in peril, but the rover still has a lot of work to do. Stay tuned for updates from Science@NASA.

Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

more information

Spirit and Opportunity home page -- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the rovers for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Sandtrapped Mars Rover Makes Big Discovery -- (Science@NASA)

A Mars Rover Named "Curiosity" -- read about NASA's next Mars rover in a story from Science@NASA

A Tale of Planetary Woe -- Long ago, something calamitous happened to Mars, transforming a hospitable world into the apparently lifeless desert we see today. Many scientists believe the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere, but how? A new NASA mission named MAVEN is specifically designed to answer that question.