Spirit in Trouble on Mars

It appears that an old friend is about to finally get stuck. It certainly an amazing tale of technical endurance that was unexpected and it still keeps functioning. By now we have surely milked as much from this tool as we can possibly milk and we certainly have a greatly improved understanding of the Martian surface. Not that we are actually climbing up and down cliffs with a rock hammer, but this is pretty close.

Now we need to figure out how to get a sample of sand back to earth. The reason is that the winds have been doing all the erosion around Mars and have been mixing up all that dust. This means that such a sample could plausibly hold a sample of every rock type on Mars. Thus unlike the Earth or the moon, a single sample may be surprisingly informative.

Spirit rover falls victim to Martian sand trap

John Matson


The Mars rover Spirit has suffered through many hardships in its five years on the forbidding planet, outliving the scope of its original mission by more than 20 times in the process. But now Spirit faces a new and tricky challenge—its wheels have partly sunk into a patch of soft soil. The rover's controllers have put a halt to driving operations while they try to figure out how to get it unstuck.

"Spirit is in a very difficult situation," John Callas, project manager for the rovers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement yesterday. "We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again." A JPL spokesperson said today that the rover's condition had not changed.

Since 2006 the buggy has been dragging a broken front wheel, and this year Spirit has suffered a few mysterious bouts of amnesia and erratic behavior. (Its twin rover, Opportunity, is aging somewhat better and soldiers on without a hitch.)

Even now, the rover remains powered and alert, and project scientists plan to use its onboard geological instruments to investigate the pesky soil. Researchers on the ground will also "attempt to replicate the rover's plight in what is known as the 'sandbox,' a lab at JPL where scientists try to simulate conditions on Mars," according to the Los Angeles Times.

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