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NASA makes final attempt to contact silent Mars rover

There's been no communication with the rover in more than a year

May 25, 2011 12:31 PM ET

Computerworld - More than a year after losing communication with the Mars rover Spirit, NASA is making one final attempt today to contact the robotic traveler.

NASA engineers long have been sending a series of transmissions in an attempt to reconnect with the rover, which scientists fear has succumbed to the frigid temperatures on the Red Planet. The final transmission is scheduled to occur today.

After that, Spirit will be given up for dead where it is stuck in the dirt.

When it first reach the surface of Mars, the robot was expected to operate for three months but instead roamed the surface of Mars for more than five years, sending back images and data to Earth.

The rover has a robotic twin, Opportunity, that is still working on Mars. But Spirit got into trouble last year when its wheels broke through Mars' crusty surface and got stuck in soft, salty sand underneath. For months afterward, NASA engineers worked to find a way to extricate Spirit from the sand. But early in 2010, scientists proclaimed it permanently stuck, with two immobile tires on one side.

Spirit needs solar energy to stay warm enough to make it through the planet's frigid winter. NASA engineers tried to angle the stuck vehicle's solar array so it was pointing more toward the sun. However, if blowing sand and debris covered the solar arrays, they wouldn't be able to absorb enough energy to wake up the machine and run its few instruments. Many of the robot's critical components and connections would be damaged by the cold.

The longer Spirit sat immobile, the slimmer its chances of ever reviving itself got.

NASA isn't giving up on using robots to investigate Mars, though. Opportunity is still roaming the planet and sending back information about what it's finding, and NASA is on schedule to launch an SUV-size rover later this year on a new Mars mission.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, dubbed Curiosity, is a super rover that will carry cameras, chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors to investigate the Martian surface. All of these instruments are designed to help scientists figure out whether life ever existed on Mars and to prepare to send humans to the Red Planet.

"We're now transitioning assets to support the November launch of our next-generation Mars rover, Curiosity," said Dave Lavery, NASA's program executive for solar system exploration, in a written statement. "However, while we no longer believe there is a realistic probability of hearing from Spirit, the Deep Space Network may occasionally listen for any faint signals when the schedule permits."

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

Read more about Emerging Technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.



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