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See Inside April 2010

Unfree Spirit: NASA's Mars Rover Appears Stuck for Good




Photo Researchers, Inc.

The Mars rover Spirit, which in January passed its sixth anniversary of landing on the Red Planet, will apparently rove no more. NASA announced in a January 26 teleconference that Spirit, stuck for months in a patch of soft soil known as Troy, has been designated a “stationary research platform.”

Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, called the rover’s plight “a golfer’s worst nightmare—the sand trap that no matter how many strokes you take, you can’t get out of it.”

Spirit lost the use of one of its six wheels four years ago, and another wheel gave out during the rover’s recent struggles at Troy. With only four functioning wheels, the extrication process has been hindered, said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (Opportunity soldiers gamely on from its landing site halfway around the planet.)

The most immediate challenge for Spirit will now be surviving the long, frigid Martian winter, for which the rover is not well positioned to maximize its gathering of solar power. And without the energy necessary to keep its components warm, Spirit could experience a fatal electronics failure. Callas estimated that temperatures could fall below –40 degrees Celsius, which would approach the boundaries of the rover’s operating specs.

Cornell University’s Steve Squyres, the principal science investigator for the rovers, expressed hope “that Spirit will survive this cold, dark winter that we have ahead of us.” If it can hang on, Squyres said, spring will bring a slew of opportunities for Spirit to conduct scientific investigations on Mars.

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