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Right now, 296m km away, on a frozen, desert, rust-red planet, a small, brave robot is stranded. And as it sits there, forlornly scanning its surroundings, here on Earth, teams of scientists, engineers and technicians – supported and watched by tens of thousands of space exploration enthusiasts across the globe – are trying to free it.

For the past five years, like its twin sister, “Opportunity”, the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” has been driving around Mars, exploring and studying the surface of the Red Planet. Since landing, Spirit has met every challenge thrown at it by Mars – dust storms, reduced power levels, even a frozen wheel that now drags behind it uselessly – and surived twenty times longer than expected. During its great adventure on Barsoom, Spirit has trekked across a vast desert, climbed a towering hill and wandered around and across a broad, low, layered rocky plateau called Homeplate. During its five year trek Spirit has ridden its luck time and time again, but it is on the crumbling side of Homeplate that Spirit has possibly run out of luck. On May 12th, Spirit was wandering along down the west side of Homeplate, a bit like R2D2 wandering alone through that canyon on Tatooine, minding its own business, heading along a relatively rock-free “path” towards its next real science targets, when it came to a grinding halt. Images taken by the rover’s cameras showed its wheels had ploughed into and then been covered and swamped by very fine, deep dust.


Initial attempts to drive the rover out of its sandtrap failed – Spirit was well and truly stuck.

This news was greeted, of course, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth in both the offices of NASA and JPL and in the studies and bedrooms of the space enthusiasts who are so dedicated to the mission. Some of us are happy to just casually check what the latest pictures show. Others, however, like me, take it much more seriously and personally. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Mars rovers have become a huge part of our lives. We check on their progress daily (often more than once), virtually walking beside them as they drive across Mars. Some of us make highly detailed maps and charts recording the rovers’ progress; others use products like Photoshop to create beautiful panoramas and mosaics from the “raw” images posted on NASA’s websites, and some even make 3D images out of pairs of pictures taken by the rovers. Here’s one of mine, showing the view Spirit is “enjoying” now (click on the image for a full size version)…


We drool over each new rock imaged by the rovers, gaze out at hills on the far horizon and long to reach them, count the layers in a wind-etched ridge and imagine reaching out and running our hands over them…

To these people, people like me, the news that Spirit was stuck so firmly was a real blow. The rovers are mean to do that, to rove, and anything that stops them doing that… well, it’s just wrong. It’s unnatural for a Mars rover to stand still for longer than a couple of sols when there’s so much more to see just a little further down the track, and completely new landscapes to explore just over the horizon…

But Spirit is stuck, and blurry, grainy images taken by a camera on the end of the rover’s robot arm – manoeuvred skilfully to allow the JPL troubleshooting team to peer under the rover and see what’s going on down there – show just how deeply poor Spirit is embedded in the dirt.


As you can see, they also show, ominously, what appears to be a large, pointed rock sticking out of the ground right beneath the rover’s flat belly. (click on the image above for a larger version). The question is: is it clear of the rover’s body, or is it actually touching and scraping it? The images aren’t clear enough to answer that, but either way it shows what a precarious position our beloved rover is.

What can be done? Well, JPL is, of course, working hard to free its beloved rover. As you read this computers in offices and labs are whirring and chugging away, their hard drives whupping around like the Galactica’s FTL drives as they run simulations and process images in the hope of gaining an insight into how the rover can be driven free. In another part of JPL, in a dirt-filled, hangar-like bay, people are working hard to physically create an accurate model of Spirit’s sandtrap – complete with realistic-looking rocks and dirt – so an engineering model of the rover can be used to test techniques and ideas…


They’re doing everything they can.

As for we “rover huggers”, well, if we had the resources and the money, there’s no doubt that we would build our own spaceship to take us to Mars and let us lift the stricken rover out of its trap! Sadly, that looks rather unlikely, so we’re relegated to the role of Backseat Drivers while those engineers and techs at JPL try to find a way to rescue Spirit from her dusty trap.

But just because we’re in the backseat doesn’t mean we can’t lean forwards and tap the driver on the shoulder to offer help now and again… 😉

Mirroring the work done by NASA, some space enthusiasts skilled in image manipulation have been “working” on the images taken by that microscopic camera on the end of the rover’s robot arm, bringing out detail and information not immediately obvious in them at first glance. Others, in the hope of identifying exactly which rock or rocks might be underneath the rover, have been mapping out the dusty area Spirit has become stuck in, by comparing pictures of it taken some time ago with pictures taken in the past few weeks, even going so far as to create 3D images of the area to provide a clearer picture of how deep the dust is and how large the rocks are, etc. And we’re not the only ones offering help.

The Mars rovers are so popular that members of the public are contacting NASA offering not just support but ideas and suggestions, too. A young boy called Julian, aged 7, wrote to JPL, putting forward his idea on a picture… (insert) Julian’s proposal was soon all over the internet, featuring on blogs and being “re-tweeted” on Twitter again and again and again.


JPL – rightly – rewarded him with an invitation to the laboratory.

So, lots of people are behind Spirit as she sits there, becalmed on that rust-red sea of martian dust. One of JPL’s team of rover drivers, Scott Maxwell, always explains why he has such a special place for Spirit in his heart by saying “Because she has had to fight for everything she’s ever had,” which is certainly true. And Spirit certainly has a fight on her hands now. After being half-smothered by dust, and suffering a broken wheel, she’s clearly facing her most epic struggle yet, because if a way can’t be found to drive her out of this sand pit, and if that rock really is jabbing up into her belly, then this could be the end of the line for the rover, she might never leave this place.

That wouldn’t be the end of the mission though. Spirit just wouldn’t be able to, well, rove, that’s all. It would essentially become a lander, a “Viking 3” almost, and would be used as a static platform for studying its surroundings in great detail – monitoring the weather and taking incredibly-detailed images of the landscape around it. Its robot arm would still be able to reach out and study rocks around it. Close monitoring of the amount of dust settling out on its back would help Mars scientists to understand wind patterns and the state of the atmosphere at this particular spot on the Red Planet.

And Spirit could even do some astronomy on Mars. Its cameras are sensitive enough to record bright stars in Mars’s sky, as well as spot the planet’s two moons skating overhead, and even catch meteors too. One photo many enthusiasts would like to see taken is a picture of the western sky after sunset, where two bright “stars” are currently shining as darkness falls… like this…


Those “stars” are actually planets – the higher and brighter of the two is Venus, the other one, slightly fainter, but with a distinctive bluish tinge, is Earth. How I would love Spirit to take a portrait of our distant world as she sits there, waiting for rescue. With the rolling hills of Gusev Crater’s rim as the horizon, and the twin sparks of Venus and Earth shining above them, that would be a photo to cherish and celebrate…

So, if Spirit stays stuck where she is now it wouldn’t be the end of the world, she could still live out the rest of her life doing science and being useful. But it wouldn’t be the same. “Rover fans” are used to seeing the scenery change, to seeing new features appear on the horizon, to looking forward to seeing something interesting “over there” in more detail once the rover has driven up to it.

What will happen to Spirit? Without a crystal ball I don’t know. It would be a sad day indeed if NASA declared to the world that Spirit’s roving days are over – but, of course, nowhere near as bad a day as if the rover had suffered a mechanical breakdown or a computer fault serious enough to render it totally useless; while not many rover fans have admitted it, at any point in the last five years Spirit could have “died” without warning, and that would have been that. If goodwill and love could move Spirit, she’d have been free of her sand-trap days ago. I know a couple of the rover drivers personally, and I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that if Spirit can be freed she will be. But it makes no sense to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the very real possibility that she might just be stuck too fast, bogged down in too much of that sucking, cloying dust, and that nothing more can be done.

All we can do is wait, and see, and hope.


One Response

  1. Stu,

    I think we should also take a moment to think about how LUCKY we are. Of course we all want Spirit to get roving again. Like you said, there are an infinite number of interesting targets out there, and we should hope to reach as many as we can. But it is inevitable that Spirit would stop roving eventually, especially given the stuck wheel and the difficult terrain. It could not go on forever.

    And if you have to get stuck somewhere, this is a fine place. We have an adjacent cliff wall to examine in depth; stunning views out across the plains where dust devils whip up periodically; we can see all the way up to Husband Hill in one direction and to Von Braun in the other, and all the way to the distant rim of Gusev; our view of the western horizon is not obstructed; we have a variety of soils beneath us and the open sky above us.

    But most important of all, we’ve got the WIND. If it was inevitable that Spirit would eventually get stuck, it was almost equally inevitable that this would lead to her demise. Not immediately, but in the depths of the subsequent winter when the light faded and she tripped a low power fault. There are only two possibilities that Spirit can live on for any length of time after getting stuck… either she gets stuck on a steep northward facing slope, or she gets stuck in a virtual wind tunnel. The odds of either of those happening are miniscule. Of course no one can choose where she gets stuck, and no one would put the brakes on a mobile rover to preserve an advantageous location forever.

    But by pure luck, we have gotten stuck in a windy hollow between two slopes. The wind is no fluke: it’s proven to be a recurring wind, one that we can reasonably expect to recur indefinitely. Yes, the winds should die down as the summer wears on, but we could reasonably expect to live through the winter here, slope or no slope. And we could reasonably expect the winds to whip us clean again next spring of the dust that accumulates thoughout the year. We could, in fact, reasonably expect Spirit to live for years.

    And that is a unique consequence of getting stuck RIGHT HERE. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pulling for her to get free as much as anyone. I really want to reach Von Braun, and see what lies beyond and what goals we might try to achieve next. The thrill is in the journey. But at the same time I can’t believe how lucky we are that Spirit should have gotten stuck in the one place where she could live on for as long as her aging hardware could take her. Even in her most desperate moment, Spirit is blessed.

    (a.k.a., Poolio)

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