Mars Rover Remains Mired in Martian Sand Trap
After five years and a five-mile trek across Mars, the rover Spirit is now hub-deep in the Martian soil and has been unable to move for almost two months. If NASA engineers are unable to maneuver Spirit out of its current jam, it may be the end of the line.
The daily NASA report from Mars is the same day after day: "Spirit
remains positioned on the west side of Home Plate." In other words,
Spirit, one of two Mars rovers, is stuck on the side of a sand dune dubbed Troy
and has been since May 6. Will this be the final resting place for
Spirit, which has already outperformed all NASA expectations?
Spirit landed on Mars Jan. 4, 2004, three weeks before its twin, Opportunity, plunked down on the other side of the planet. Their mission was originally scheduled for 90 Martian days, but five years later, Spirit and Opportunity have continued to defy the odds, sending more than a quarter-million images of the Mars surface and providing details about the planet's chemistry, geology and atmosphere.
Then came May 6 and Spirit stalled in the loose soil of Troy. By May 7, NASA quit trying to move Spirit and concentrated on extricating the rover. On the ground, NASA prepared a "shoebox" to replicate the conditions at the Troy and wheeled a test rover into the sandbox. On Mars, Spirit sent images of its underside that revealed a possible rock underneath the rover. NASA even launched a Free Spirit Website.
So far, no luck.
Spirit remains stuck but not entirely out of luck. As a result of winds blowing dust off Spirit's solar panel four times in June, Spirit now has enough power to add an extra communication session each day. Opportunity, meanwhile, continues it mission.
"I'm very attached to them," John Callas, the rover project manager, told the McClatchy-Tribune Information Services "They exhibit humanlike qualities. They have trials and tribulations. Like aging humans, they've got arthritic joints, they forget things, their vision is not what it used to be. When something's not right, you get that sinking feeling in your stomach."
Spirit has survived other travails, such as when an enormous dust storm blotted out the sun for six weeks in the summer of 2007, coating the robots' solar panels and reducing both Spirit's and Opportunity's power supply.
"The rovers are our children," wrote Ashley Stroupe, a member of JPL's rover team, on her blog. "Like parents of adult children who have moved away, we worry, we try to keep them safe, we try to teach them what we know, and we give them guidance. Sometimes they listen, and sometimes they don't. But together, we've made amazing discoveries."