‘Stuck’ Martian rover learns about Red Planet’s ecological history

June 26th, 2009 - 12:20 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, June 26 (ANI): NASA’s Mars rover Spirit, lodged in Martian soil that is causing traction trouble, is taking advantage of the situation by learning more about the Red Planet’s environmental history.

In April, Spirit entered an area composed of three or more layers of soil with differing pastel hues hiding beneath a darker sand blanket.

Scientists dubbed the site “Troy.”

Spirit’s rotating wheels dug themselves more than hub deep at the site.

The rover team has spent weeks studying Spirit’s situation and preparing a simulation of this Martian driving dilemma to test escape maneuvers using an engineering test rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

A rock seen beneath Spirit in images from the camera on the end of the rover’s arm may be touching Spirit’s belly.

Scientists believe it appears to be a loose rock not bearing the rover’s weight.

While Spirit awaits extraction instructions, the rover is keeping busy examining Troy, which is next to a low plateau called Home Plate, approximately 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) southeast of where Spirit landed in January 2004.

“By serendipity, Troy is one of the most interesting places Spirit has been,” said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis.

“We are able here to study each layer, each different color of the interesting soils exposed by the wheels,” he added.

Spirit has been using tools on its robotic arm to examine tan, yellow, white and dark-red sandy soil at Troy. Stretched-color images from the panoramic camera show the tints best.

“The layers have basaltic sand, sulfate-rich sand and areas with the addition of silica-rich materials, possibly sorted by wind and cemented by the action of thin films of water. We’re still at a stage of multiple working hypotheses,” said Arvidson.

“This may be evidence of much more recent processes than the formation of Home Plate, or is
Home Plate being slowly stripped back by wind, and we happened to stir up a deposit from billions of years ago before the wind got to it?” he added.

Team members from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston feel initial readings suggest that iron is mostly present in an oxidized form as ferric sulfate and that some of the differences in tints at Troy observed by the panoramic camera may come from differences in the hydration states of iron sulfates.

While extraction plans for the rover are developed and tested during the coming weeks, the team plans to have Spirit further analyze the soil from different depths. (ANI)

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