Once the Martian rover Spirit makes it through the hard winter it more than likely will be roving no more.
The rover that has spent six years exploring the surface of Mars will no longer be a fully mobile robot but a stationary science platform, equivalent to a Martian desk job.
The rover Spirit ran into trouble, literally, about ten months ago when it was driving toward a plateau scientists have named Home Plate.
Its wheels broke through the hard, crusty surface and became embedded in the fine soft sand underneath. In November, John Callus, the rover project manager, and his team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory began an earthbound exercise to free Spirit. They built a sand trap that simulated the area in which Spirit was embedded and filled it with a mixture similar to Martian soil. Engineers prepared their Spirit stand-in with the same modifications as the real rover including all the wear and tear six years on the red planet has produced.
Before it was embedded Spirit had one broken wheel and recently another wheel stopped working.
Engineers worked for months on the best way to free the rover.
“We made some progress in terms of trying to extricate [Spirit],” said Callus.
But time is not on the rover’s side as the Martian winter nears.
“Right now we need to position the rover for the winter. There is a real risk we may not survive,” he said.
The challenge for engineers now is to prepare the rover for the harsh Martian winter. At present Spirit is at an unfavorable tilt which threatens its solar panels and power supplies. Engineers will be attempting to improve the rover’s position. If not improved the rover will be running at a power deficit, Callus said.
If the power gets too low the rover’s self preservation will kick in and it will go into a deep sleep. The rover is designed to protect itself and to survive the winters but it has been on Mars for six years.
“It may not tolerate [Mars’] extreme environment,” Callus said.
Spirit has had problems in the past from its broken wheel to sand storms and low energy and each time has been resilient. Once it gets through the winter it will begin its stationary research. Scientists have said the area that the rover has found itself embedded is scientifically rich.
“It is like your car broke down next to Disneyland,” Callus added.
For right now engineers are concentrating on moving Spirit ever so slightly to take advantage of the Martian sun and hopefully keep enough power to continue communications through the winter.
“Spirit is not dead, it has just entered another phase of its long life,” stated Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA. “We told the world last year that attempts to set the beloved robot free may not be successful. It looks like Spirit’s current location on Mars will be its final resting place.”