Mars rover stuck for good but still working hard

January 27th, 2010 - 1:51 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Jan 27 (DPA) The Spirit Mars rover has reached its final destination, NASA said after the failure of efforts to free the space probe from sandy soil where it had been trapped for months.
Spirit is stuck but remains functional and will live out its life as a stationary science platform, collecting data on the area where it ran into trouble in April.

NASA had been trying since November to free the rover in an effort to back it out of a patch of sandy soil where its wheels had become embedded.

The US space agency determined Tuesday that there soon would not be enough solar power to drive Spirit, so instead of trying to free it, they will focus efforts on getting the rover tilted to take advantage of the weaker winter sun. The Martian winter begins in May at the rover’s location.

NASA mission scientists will attempt to tilt the rover to the north toward the sun to allow it to operate during the winter, to keep it from going into hibernation mode for several months.

Spirit is one of two rovers that have far exceeded expectations and are now in their sixth year of what were planned as 90-day missions, exploring the Martian surface and making important discoveries about water on Earth’s neighbour.

It has overcome obstacles no scientist thought it would, earning kudos as “the little rover that could”, after a popular children’s book, “The Little Engine That Could”.

Spirit ran aground in April when it broke through a hard shell of soil, and its wheels got stuck in soft powder the consistency of talcum. Since then, scientists have been at work on Earth, running models in a sandbox at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to work out a solution.

The site is likely an impact crater with coarse soil containing the highest sulphate content yet found on Mars, and Spirit will examine the soil. It can also be used to study wobbles in Mars’ rotation to learn about the planet’s core.

“Spirit is not dead; it has just entered another phase of its long life,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars exploration programme.

Spirit landed Jan 3, 2004, and was followed by sister rover Opportunity three weeks later. Since then, the golf cart-sized craft have provided scientists with valuable information about the Red Planet’s wet history, while sending back 250,000 images and driving more than 21 km.

Opportunity is still in good condition and moving toward the Endeavour crater for further exploration.

Perhaps the most important discovery of the mission to date was silica in Mars’ soil that was uncovered by a dragging wheel on the Spirit rover. The mineral was seen as a likely product of a damp environment produced by hot springs or steam vents.

In 2007, NASA almost lost contact with Opportunity as it battled to survive a Martian dust storm that cut off its solar power source. Spirit has also faced some difficulties from dust, and it barely survived its third Martian winter as its solar panels became coated with dirt.

The survival of the craft is even more remarkable because nearly two-thirds of Mars missions in the past have failed, with a European craft, Beagle 2, launched just before Spirit and Opportunity, failing to make any contact with scientists back home.

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