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May 26, 2011

NASA Declares Spirit Mars Rover Gone - but not Forgotten

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


On Wednesday, May 25, NASA finally ended its attempts to regain contact with the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. The last time the agency had contact with the unmanned robot was on March 22, 2010 and has spent the past 10 months hoping that Spirit would be able to survive a harsh Martian winter with little sunlight to power its internal heaters.   

Without enough power to the heaters, the rover likely got too cold, damaging critical components and connections.

Spirit's initial mission was only designed to last three months when it landed on Mars over six years ago, on January 3, 2004. The little solar-powered rover was only expected to travel four-tenths of a mile. It managed to last far beyond its initial warranty period (but realistically, most NASA probes do) and traveled 4.8 miles across the Martian surface in short bursts, returning more than 124,000 images. It also used a brush and a grinder to expose rocks for examination with spectrometers and a microscopic imager.

Spirit started limping in 2006, when its right front wheel became immobile. But the gimp wheel ended up plowing up bright white soil that was nearly pure silica, an indicator that once hot springs or steam vents existed on the surface of Mars.   In 2009, Spirit's left wheels broke through a crust and churned into soft sand, becoming stuck. A second wheel later stopped working, leaving the rover trapped in terrain where it couldn't effectively slant its solar panels towards the sun to collect enough energy to survive the Martian winter.

Researchers say Spirit, Opportunity, and other NASA Mars probes have found evidence of wet Martian environments once existed on the planet, indicating favorable conditions for life.

Spirit is survived by its brother rover Opportunity. The second rover landed on Mars January 25, 2004 and continues chug along, abet with some problems with its robotic arm and concerns with its right front wheel. As of May 12, 2011, Opportunity had covered over 18 miles on the surface of Mars, moving anywhere from 60 to 140 meters per day across the landscape. Like any good tourist, it makes short detours to look at interesting features to take pictures and look at rocks.

If all goes well, Opportunity will be joined by the nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity in August 2012.   Curiosity is designed to operate for at least one Mars year (687 Earth Days), traveling up to 200 meters per day across the surface to scoop up and examine smaller rocks, drilling samples from larger rocks. Curiosity will examine if conditions on Mars have been favorable for bacteria and look for clues in rocks about possible past life.

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Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell



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