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Spirit is stuck :-(


I knew it was going too well, I just KNEW it! In the past week or so the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” – which had really been struggling – was given a new lease of life thanks to a amazing “cleaning event”: several strong gusts of wind removed a lot of the martian dust which had been covering its solar panels, thus boosting its power levels to hights unseen for not months but years. That was the cause of great celebrations amongst the MER team and space enthusiasts following the mission – more power meant the rover could basically just DO more.

And then, when it all seemed to be going so well, Spirit got stuck. And it looks like she’s going nowhere for a while.

I’ll copy in the official NASA press release in a moment, but basically what’s happened is that the rover – which is now driving backwards because one of its wheels is not working (it stopped working yonks ago) – found itself trying to drive through some very loose, soft sandy material, and soon it started sinking down into it. Now the rover’s 5 working wheels seem to be half-buried in the loose material, and it will clearly be a struggle getting the rover out again. I’m sure they will – nothing Mars has thrown at the men and women behind the rovers has stopped them in their tracks for too long – but we may be seeing the current view for a while, so get used to it.

What’s SO annoying is that Spirit was making good progress towards her next targets – von Braun and Goddard, which are, literally, just up the road from where she is now. True to her name, Spirit has always had to work for every single meter she’s driven, but the diva rover thinks nothing of throwing a melodramatic swooning strop every now and again, just to keep us on our toes. And here we go again…

The picture above shows roughly where Spirit has become becalmed. See how close von Braun is? Grrrrr. Not fair.

Anyway, in case you haven’t read it yet, here’s the official press release, with some more information…

PASADENA, Calif. — The five wheels that still rotate on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit have been slipping severely in soft soil during recent attempts to drive, sinking the wheels about halfway into the ground.

The rover team of engineers and scientists has suspended driving Spirit temporarily while studying the ground around the rover and planning simulation tests of driving options with a test rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

“Spirit is in a very difficult situation,” JPL’s John Callas, project manager for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, said Monday. “We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again. Meanwhile, we are using Spirit’s scientific instruments to learn more about the physical properties of the soil that is giving us trouble.”

Both Spirit and Opportunity have operated more than five years longer than their originally planned missions of three months on Mars and have driven much farther than designed. The rover team has so far developed ways to cope with various symptoms of aging on both rovers.

Spirit has been driving counterclockwise from north to south around a low plateau called “Home Plate” for two months. The rover progressed 122 meters (400 feet) on that route before reaching its current position.

In the past week, the digging-in of Spirit’s wheels has raised concerns that the rover’s belly pan could now be low enough to contact rocks underneath the chassis, which would make getting out of the situation more difficult. The right-front wheel on Spirit stopped working three years ago. Driving with just five powered wheels while dragging or pushing an immobile wheel adds to the challenge of the situation.

Favorably, three times in the past month, wind has removed some of the dust accumulated on Spirit’s solar panels. This increases the rover’s capability for generating electricity.

“The improved power situation buys us time,” Callas said. “We will use that time to plan the next steps carefully. We know that dust storms could return at any time, although the skies are currently clear.”

Behavioral problems that Spirit exhibited in early April — episodes of amnesia, computer resets and failure to wake for communications sessions — have not recurred in the past three weeks, though investigations have yet to diagnose the root causes.


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