NASA abandons Mars rover rescue efforts

Scientists hoping to make NASA's stuck Spirit a stationary Martian laboratory

After six years roaming across and working on Mars, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has been deemed permanently stuck in dirt on the planet's surface.

Nonetheless, NASA officials hope it can still conduct experiments to help scientists better understand the planet.

With NASA's robotic rover trapped in one spot, engineers at the space agency are concerned that the machine won't survive the extremely frigid temperatures of the upcoming Martian winter. But NASA scientists said during a press conference today that they still hold out hope that Spirit can survive and conduct new experiments when spring comes to the Red Planet.

"Right now, the rover is embedded," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "We do not believe that it's extractable. The immobility of the rover is complete. We're just focusing on trying to survive the winter."

Spirit got into trouble last year while working its way south near the western edge of a plateau NASA has dubbed Home Plate. The vehicle's wheels broke through the crusty surface and got stuck in some soft, salty sand underneath. Since then, NASA engineers have worked tirelessly to find a way to extricate the rover from the sand, but the vehicle now has two immobile tires on one side.

Today was the first time that NASA officials admitted that there will be no moving Spirit again.

However, Spirit's twin, the Mars rover Opportunity, continues to move and work on the Martian surface.

And Spirit, if it can survive the winter, will operate as a stationary platform.

The first order of business, according to Ashley Stroupe, a rover driver at NASA, will be to try to angle the vehicle's solar array so that it's pointing more toward the sun.

Stroupe said that NASA has been able to slightly edge the rover backward, changing the angle of the arrays by one to two degrees. Drivers in Mission Control also are trying to rotate the rover in place to get the arrays in a better position.

Spirit needs to be able to use solar energy to heat itself enough to make it through the frigid winter.

John L. Callas, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers, noted today that NASA is already beginning to see a decrease in the rover's energy levels. To conserve as much energy as possible, Callas said NASA has instructed the robot to turn off all of its instruments except for its master clock.

"Every day the rover will check its batteries, and if there's enough charge, it will wake itself up and try to communicate with Earth," said Callas. "The rover will be like a polar bear hibernating for possibly six months. We need to be prepared to go through an extended period of time where we will not hear from Rover. It just may have insufficient power to be awake every day."

If Spirit doesn't capture enough solar energy to wake up and run a few instruments, it may not generate enough heat to withstand the winter, said Callas. "It's like running your car to keep it warm," he added.

However, if Spirit does survive the winter, NASA has a slate of new experiments for it to work on as a piece of stationary equipment.

For example, Steven Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers, explained that he'd like to spend six months tracking Spirit's radio signals. Since the rover is now immobile, scientists should be able to use the radio signals to track the way Mars spins on its axis.

"Because of gravitation interaction with the sun, Mars' spin axis wobbles ever so slightly," said Squyres. "We should be able to characterize the nature of that wobble, and that's important because the way that Mars wobbles tells us about its internal structure. We can determine if the core of Mars is liquid or molten. It's something we really didn't think about when we first put the rover on Mars. But now that things have changed, you think of new tricks."

He also noted that NASA is hoping to study the salty soil that the rover is stuck in.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, send e-mail to sgaudin@computerworld.com or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed .

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