Ups And Downs for Spirit Rover

This picture shows the light-toned, disturbed soil where Spirit is currently stuck. The wheels spin, but just sink deeper in the soft sand.

This picture shows the light-toned, disturbed soil where Spirit is currently stuck. The wheels spin, but just sink deeper in the soft sand.

Recently, Spirit has had some very good news and some very bad news. The good news is that we just had a huge cleaning event, with high winds blowing the solar panels clean so that we are getting power levels that we haven’t seen in years!

The bad news is that this occurred as Spirit got stuck in deep, soft sand. Last week we were commanding drives of tens of meters and getting tens of millimeters of progress. Not a good situation. The extra power boost helps, but Spirit still needs to get out of the soft soil before winter sets in. We had an all-hands meeting yesterday to discuss the plan for the next few weeks. We will be doing tons of imaging and measurements on the soil surrounding the rover to figure out what its mechanical properties are, and the mock-up rover at JPL will be put into the testbed, stuck in similar piles of soil and the engineers on the team will figure out the best way to extract ourselves.

For more info, check out this NASA press release:

May 11, 2009

Mars Exploration Rover Mission Status Report

PASADENA, Calif. — The five wheels that still rotate on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit have been slipping severely in soft soil during recent attempts to drive, sinking the wheels about halfway into the ground.

The rover team of engineers and scientists has suspended driving Spirit temporarily while studying the ground around the rover and planning simulation tests of driving options with a test rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

“Spirit is in a very difficult situation,” JPL’s John Callas, project manager for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, said Monday. “We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again. Meanwhile, we are using Spirit’s scientific instruments to learn more about the physical properties of the soil that is giving us trouble.”

Both Spirit and Opportunity have operated more than five years longer than their originally planned missions of three months on Mars and have driven much farther than designed. The rover team has so far developed ways to cope with various symptoms of aging on both rovers.

Spirit has been driving counterclockwise from north to south around a low plateau called “Home Plate” for two months. The rover progressed 122 meters (400 feet) on that route before reaching its current position.

In the past week, the digging-in of Spirit’s wheels has raised concerns that the rover’s belly pan could now be low enough to contact rocks underneath the chassis, which would make getting out of the situation more difficult. The right-front wheel on Spirit stopped working three years ago. Driving with just five powered wheels while dragging or pushing an immobile wheel adds to the challenge of the situation.

Favorably, three times in the past month, wind has removed some of the dust accumulated on Spirit’s solar panels. This increases the rover’s capability for generating electricity.

“The improved power situation buys us time,” Callas said. “We will use that time to plan the next steps carefully. We know that dust storms could return at any time, although the skies are currently clear.”

Behavioral problems that Spirit exhibited in early April — episodes of amnesia, computer resets and failure to wake for communications sessions — have not recurred in the past three weeks, though investigations have yet to diagnose the root causes.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Explore posts in the same categories: Home Plate, MER, NASA, Spirit

15 Comments on “Ups And Downs for Spirit Rover”

  1. valhalla Says:

    Carl Sagan predicted this in 1985 in Contact.

  2. Ryan Says:

    I don’t remember any rovers in Contact. Remind me?


  3. […] Ups And Downs for Spirit Rover – The Martian Chronicles Stronger winds have cleared the solar panels of dust, however Spirit it seems may be stuck in the sand. […]


  4. This article has been added to the Astronomy Link List.

  5. valhalla Says:

    In the middle section of the 1985 novel (nothing about this was in the 1997 film), when Arroway was walking with a friend through Paris, there was a comment on two Mars rovers.

    One was exploring some pyramid-shaped mounds in Elysium and the other was stuck in a sand dune calling Earth for help, which so far the humans had been unable to provide.

  6. Ryan Says:

    Wow, I’ve read the book twice and somehow missed that part! (admittedly both readings were before I was involved in the Rovers, so maybe it didn’t stand out as much as it would now)

  7. Chgowiz Says:

    What happens if they can’t get Spirit extracted? Will they hope that winter cold will help? Is Spirit at a bad angle for winter sunlight?

    Man, what a revoltin’ predicament! They should’ve taken a left at Esperanza… ;)

    • Ryan Says:

      If they can’t get extracted then Spirit will act as a lander, gathering as much data as possible about this part of Mars. When winter comes it may be the end for Spirit. We aren’t tilted properly to maximize winter energy, but the solar panels are much cleaner so it’s hard (for me at least) to say what would happen. We have a pretty resourceful engineering team, so maybe they would be able to keep Spirit alive through the winter by turning off various parts of the rover to save energy.

      • valhalla Says:

        Considering how little Spirit has moved around in the last few years, it is practically a static lander now.

        I am sure it can still learn a thing or two about the region it is in, and it can also serve as a weatehr station, so as long as the mechanics hold out and it gets hit with a few more dust devils, Spirit probably has at least a couple more years in it.

  8. infamousginger Says:

    Can it hurl out a grappling hook in front of itself and retract the string?

    • Ryan Says:

      Sadly, no. Even worse, the arm is not strong enough to do much either. At the meeting monday people were talking about last ditch possibilities of moving small rocks into the wheel trench to try to get some traction, but that would likely damage the arm motors and the instruments so I doubt it will happen. The arm is certainly not strong enough to do a “one armed pushup” to get out of the sand.

    • valhalla Says:

      A grappling hook? Are you joking? Did you bother to even examine what the rovers have at all?

      • Ryan Says:

        Yeah, she’s definitely joking. I know her in “real life”. I just took the opportunity to segue into talking a little about the arm’s capabilities.


  9. Just to say – GOOD LUCK GUYS!!!!

    • valhalla Says:

      I wonder if to save money, NASA will kill off the rovers just like they did with Viking 1 in 1982 when it could have lasted through 1994, all to save money.

      If you think that is implausible, read up on how the budget guy for Reagan seriously considered shutting down Voyager 2 before it went to Uranus and Neptune, all to save a few dollars.


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