Latest Spirit News - Updates on the efforts to free the Spirit rover.
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is now parked for the winter. The rover team is commanding Spirit this week to make additional preparations for the Mars southern hemisphere winter season. The team does not plan further motion of the wheels until spring comes to Spirit's location beside the western edge of a low plateau called Home Plate.
On Sol 2169 (Feb. 8, 2010), the rover's last drive before winter changed the angles of its suspension system, but it did not produce a hoped-for improvement to the overall tilt of the solar array for catching winter sunshine. Drives since Sol 2145 (Jan. 15, 2010) moved Spirit 34 centimeters (13 inches) south-southeastward. However, a counterclockwise yawing of the rover during the drives prevented it from reducing its southerly tilt.
Spirit will spend the coming winter tilted 9 degrees toward the south, an unfavorable attitude for the solar panels to catch rays from the sun in the northern sky. Spirit's parking positions for its previous three Martian winters tilted northward. Engineers anticipate that, due to the unfavorable tilt for this fourth winter, Spirit will be out of communication with Earth for several months.
Spirit may enter a low-power hibernation mode within a few weeks, shutting down almost all functions except keeping a master clock running and checking its power status periodically until it has enough power to reawaken. It may go in and out of this mode a few times at the beginning and at the end of an extended hibernation period.
This week the rover team is uploading schedules to Spirit for when to communicate with Earth or with the orbiting Mars Odyssey during the rest of this year and into 2011. Spirit will use these schedules whenever it has adequate power to wake up. Spirit will take a set of "before" images of surroundings from the parked position this week, for comparison with images in the Martian spring to study effects of wind. Images toward the south will also aid preparations for possible future drives, although, with only four of its six wheels still working, the rover is not expected to move farther than short repositioning drives. Other preparations for winter will include putting the robotic arm into a position for studies of atmospheric composition when power is available and changing the stow positions of the high-gain antenna and panoramic camera to minimize shadowing of the solar panels.
Spirit is more than six years into a mission originally planned for three months on Mars. Its twin, Opportunity, is exploring an area halfway around the planet and closer to the equator, where that rover does not need to park for the winter.
WASHINGTON -- After six years of unprecedented exploration of the Red Planet, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit no longer will be a fully mobile robot. NASA has designated the once-roving scientific explorer a stationary science platform after efforts during the past several months to free it from a sand trap have been unsuccessful.
The venerable robot's primary task in the next few weeks will be to position itself to combat the severe Martian winter. If Spirit survives, it will continue conducting significant new science from its final location. The rover's mission could continue for several months to years.
"Spirit is not dead; it has just entered another phase of its long life," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "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."
Ten months ago, as Spirit was driving south beside the western edge of a low plateau called Home Plate, its wheels broke through a crusty surface and churned into soft sand hidden underneath.
After Spirit became embedded, the rover team crafted plans for trying to get the six-wheeled vehicle free using its five functioning wheels - the sixth wheel quit working in 2006, limiting Spirit's mobility. The planning included experiments with a test rover in a sandbox at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., plus analysis, modeling and reviews. In November, another wheel quit working, making a difficult situation even worse.
Recent drives have yielded the best results since Spirit became embedded. However, the coming winter mandates a change in strategy. It is mid-autumn at the solar-powered robot's home on Mars. Winter will begin in May. Solar energy is declining and expected to become insufficient to power further driving by mid-February. The rover team plans to use those remaining potential drives for improving the rover's tilt. Spirit currently tilts slightly toward the south. The winter sun stays in the northern sky, so decreasing the southward tilt would boost the amount of sunshine on the rover's solar panels.
"We need to lift the rear of the rover, or the left side of the rover, or both," said Ashley Stroupe, a rover driver at JPL. "Lifting the rear wheels out of their ruts by driving backward and slightly uphill will help. If necessary, we can try to lower the front right of the rover by attempting to drop the right-front wheel into a rut or dig it into a hole."
At its current angle, Spirit probably would not have enough power to keep communicating with Earth through the Martian winter. Even a few degrees of improvement in tilt might make enough difference to enable communication every few days.
"Getting through the winter will all come down to temperature and how cold the rover electronics will get," said John Callas, project manager at JPL for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity. "Every bit of energy produced by Spirit's solar arrays will go into keeping the rover's critical electronics warm, either by having the electronics on or by turning on essential heaters."
Even in a stationary state, Spirit continues scientific research.
"There's a class of science we can do only with a stationary vehicle that we had put off during the years of driving," said Steve Squyres, a researcher at Cornell University and principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity. "Degraded mobility does not mean the mission ends abruptly. Instead, it lets us transition to stationary science."
One stationary experiment Spirit has begun studies tiny wobbles in the rotation of Mars to gain insight about the planet's core. This requires months of radio-tracking the motion of a point on the surface of Mars to calculate long-term motion with an accuracy of a few inches.
"If the final scientific feather in Spirit's cap is determining whether the core of Mars is liquid or solid, that would be wonderful -- it's so different from the other knowledge we've gained from Spirit," said Squyres.
Tools on Spirit's robotic arm can study variations in the composition of nearby soil, which has been affected by water. Stationary science also includes watching how wind moves soil particles and monitoring the Martian atmosphere.
Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004. They have been exploring for six years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission. Opportunity currently is driving toward a large crater called Endeavor and continues to make scientific discoveries. It has driven approximately 12 miles and returned more than 133,000 images.
JPL manages the rovers for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. For more information about Spirit and Opportunity, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/rovers.