Loose soil forces NASA’’s Mars rover Spirit to change route to summer destination

March 8th, 2009 - 1:05 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, March 8 (ANI): Loose soil piled against the northern edge of a low plateau called “Home Plate” has blocked NASA’’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit from taking the shortest route toward its southward destinations for the upcoming Martian summer and following winter. The rover has begun a trek skirting at least partway around the plateau instead of directly over it. However, Spirit has also gotten a jump start on its summer science plans, examining a silica-rich outcrop that adds information about a long-gone environment that had hot water or steam. Even a circuitous route to the destinations chosen for Spirit would be much shorter than the overland expedition Spirit’’s twin, Opportunity, is making on the opposite side of Mars. Both rovers landed on Mars in 2004 for what were originally planned as three-month missions there. Spirit spent 2008 on the northern edge of Home Plate, a flat-topped deposit about the size of a baseball field, composed of hardened ash and rising about 1.5 meters (5 feet) above the ground around it. There, the north-facing tilt positioned Spirit’’s solar arrays to catch enough sunshine for the rover to survive the six-month-long Martian winter. The scientists and engineers who operate the rovers chose as 2009 destinations a steep mound called “Von Braun” and an irregular, 45-meter-wide (150-foot-wide) bowl called “Goddard.” These side-by-side features offer a promising area to examine while energy is adequate during the Martian summer and also to provide the next north-facing winter haven beginning in late 2009. Von Braun and Goddard intrigue scientists as sites where Spirit may find more evidence about an explosive mix of water and volcanism in the area’’s distant past. They are side-by-side, about 200 meters, or yards, south of where Spirit is now. In January and February this year, Spirit descended from Home Plate and drove eastward about 15 meters (about 50 feet) toward a less steep on-ramp. “Spirit could not make progress in the last two attempts to get up onto Home Plate,” said John Callas of NASA’’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, project manager for both rovers. “Alternatively, we are driving Spirit around Home Plate to the east. Spirit will have to go around a couple of small ridges that extend to the northeast, and then see whether a route east of Home Plate looks traversable. If that route proves not to be traversable, a route around the west side of Home Plate is still an option,” he added. (ANI)

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