NASA's Mars Rover Spirit Facing Its Biggest Challenge Yet

NASA's Mars Rover Spirit Facing Its Biggest Challenge Yet

NASA hosted a teleconference today to discuss attempts to free the Mars rover Spirit from sandy soil where the robot has been stuck for the past six months. On Monday, the team will resume attempts to extricate the rover, although chances of success are slim.

In what he called “a bittersweet press conference,” Director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, Doug McCuistion, briefly described Spirit’s difficult journey since it landed on Mars with its counterpart Opportunity back in January 2004. Spirit has faced difficult issues – from software and “amnesia events” to one of its six wheels being broken – but it “may have met its match in this one,” said McCuistion. In April 23, Spirit’s wheels became imbedded in sandy soil after moving backwards on a site the team has named “Troy.”

Initial maneuvers demonstrated that the mix of rocks, uncovered sand, and tilted position of the rover led to “sinkage” that compromised its mobility. Since then, the rover team has undertaken an “ambitious ground test campaign to simulate the situation on Earth,” said John Callas, Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He added that the plan on Monday is to attempt to move forward, retracing Spirit’s steps back north. Ashley Stroupe, one of the rover drivers at JPL, added that this may allow them to take advantage of the softer material and the relatively flat path, but that there is no guarantee that any strategy will successfully extricate the vehicle.

Fortunately, the last six months have proven fruitful. According to Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rovers at Washington University in St. Louis, the current site has proven to be a “geological treasure trove.” The discovery of soil with unexpectedly high sulfur contents point to exciting sources of data, even if this proves to be the last destination of the long-lived rover.

An annual senior review that will take place in February 2010 will likely be the first date when the future of Spirit will be reassessed. The team will have at least until then to try to liberate the rover and will be posting progress reports throughout the process. “I want everybody to be realistic,” said McCuistion, stressing that team members are aware that Spirit’s current predicament is much more serious than what either rover has faced before.

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