Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Spirit rover is stuck for good

Artist's conception of the Mars Exploration Rovers at work
Image Credit: NASA

Today NASA announced that the Spirit rover, one of the two robotic rovers exploring Mars, is stuck and cannot be freed from a sand trap in the Columbia Hills in Gusev Crater.  Spirit can still wiggle a little bit, and so the rover control team is trying to tilt the rover toward the sun in the hopes that it can survive the brutal, year-long Martian winter.  Spirit can still perform a lot of science, studying the rocks and soil within the reach of her arm, taking weather measurements, and even acting as a precise locator beacon, allowing scientists to look for wobbles in Mars' rotation that can help tell whether Mars has a solid or liquid inner core.

Again, Spirit is not dead, but it is stranded.  To date, Spirit has survived 2157 Martian days, and the mission goal was 90.  I think that counts as successful.  

Could the Mars rover team try and free Spirit again come the Martian spring?  Perhaps, though I doubt it.  The rover is dug in pretty deeply, and two of Spirit's wheels don't turn anymore.  Imagine trying to push a heavy shopping cart whose two front wheels don't work through a sandbox, and now imagine trying to do that with a remote control from 40 million miles away. At some point, the slight chance of freeing the rover is no longer worth the expense, and NASA believes that point has been reached.

After hearing the news that Spirit has been transformed from a rover to a stationary science platform, the song "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" started going through my head, though with slightly altered lyrics (my apologies to Eric Bogle; you can find the original lyrics from his page):
And she'll go no more waltzing Matilda, all around Gusev Crater on Mars
To climb through the hills, rovers need all six wheels
Now Spirit sits still 'neath the stars

Edit: As a side note, Mars is nearing opposition, when it is opposite the sun in the sky, and when Earth is closest to the Red Planet.  What does this mean?  If you have clear skies in the next few weeks, look toward the east in the early evening, or high overhead around midnight.  The bright yellowish-orange "star" you see is Mars.  The only other star nearly as bright as Mars in the evening sky right now is the star Sirius.  Mars has a distinct orangish hue, while in comparison, Sirius is a steely white.

1 comment:

  1. Pity to see 'Spirit' bogged down but it has done such a good job & I'd like to thank all those who made its journey across the russet sands of Mars possible and especially possible for us to share its journey. I hope the Spirit MER break free to roanm yet further but if not, vale and well done.