Archive for the ‘Spirit’ category

xkcd Spirit

January 29, 2010

xkcd (a comic which you should all be reading if you aren’t already) has a nice comic up today about Spirit. Click the image to see the whole thing.

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So we’ll go no more a roving…

January 27, 2010

With yesterday’s news of Spirit’s defeat at the hands of the sulfury sands of Mars, I was reminded of this poem. It is by Lord Byron, but I first encountered it in one of my favorite short stories in this blog’s namesake, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. The story is entitled “And the Moon be Still as Bright”, and the poem is “So we’ll go no more a-roving”:

So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Spirit is no longer a Rover

January 27, 2010

An animation of Spirit's final attempts to adjust its position in the soft soil of "Troy". Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (click to view if the image is not animating)

In a news conference yesterday, NASA announced that Spirit’s driving days are likely over, but by virtue of remaining stationary, new science possibilities are opened up. Here’s the text from the press release:

After six years of unprecedented exploration of the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit no longer will be a fully mobile robot. NASA has designated the once-roving scientific explorer a stationary science platform after efforts during the past several months to free it from a sand trap have been unsuccessful.

The venerable robot’s primary task in the next few weeks will be to position itself to combat the severe Martian winter. If Spirit survives, it will continue conducting significant new science from its final location. The rover’s mission could continue for several months to years.

“Spirit is not dead; it has just entered another phase of its long life,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We told the world last year that attempts to set the beloved robot free may not be successful. It looks like Spirit’s current location on Mars will be its final resting place.”

Ten months ago, as Spirit was driving south beside the western edge of a low plateau called Home Plate, its wheels broke through a crusty surface and churned into soft sand hidden underneath.

After Spirit became embedded, the rover team crafted plans for trying to get the six-wheeled vehicle free using its five functioning wheels – the sixth wheel quit working in 2006, limiting Spirit’s mobility. The planning included experiments with a test rover in a sandbox at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., plus analysis, modeling and reviews. In November, another wheel quit working, making a difficult situation even worse.

Recent drives have yielded the best results since Spirit became embedded. However, the coming winter mandates a change in strategy. It is mid-autumn at the solar-powered robot’s home on Mars. Winter will begin in May. Solar energy is declining and expected to become insufficient to power further driving by mid-February. The rover team plans to use those remaining potential drives for improving the rover’s tilt. Spirit currently tilts slightly toward the south. The winter sun stays in the northern sky, so decreasing the southward tilt would boost the amount of sunshine on the rover’s solar panels.

“We need to lift the rear of the rover, or the left side of the rover, or both,” said Ashley Stroupe, a rover driver at JPL. “Lifting the rear wheels out of their ruts by driving backward and slightly uphill will help. If necessary, we can try to lower the front right of the rover by attempting to drop the right-front wheel into a rut or dig it into a hole.”

At its current angle, Spirit probably would not have enough power to keep communicating with Earth through the Martian winter. Even a few degrees of improvement in tilt might make enough difference to enable communication every few days.

“Getting through the winter will all come down to temperature and how cold the rover electronics will get,” said John Callas, project manager at JPL for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity. “Every bit of energy produced by Spirit’s solar arrays will go into keeping the rover’s critical electronics warm, either by having the electronics on or by turning on essential heaters.”

Even in a stationary state, Spirit continues scientific research.

“There’s a class of science we can do only with a stationary vehicle that we had put off during the years of driving,” said Steve Squyres, a researcher at Cornell University and principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity. “Degraded mobility does not mean the mission ends abruptly. Instead, it lets us transition to stationary science.”

One stationary experiment Spirit has begun studies tiny wobbles in the rotation of Mars to gain insight about the planet’s core. This requires months of radio-tracking the motion of a point on the surface of Mars to calculate long-term motion with an accuracy of a few inches.

“If the final scientific feather in Spirit’s cap is determining whether the core of Mars is liquid or solid, that would be wonderful — it’s so different from the other knowledge we’ve gained from Spirit,” said Squyres.

Tools on Spirit’s robotic arm can study variations in the composition of nearby soil, which has been affected by water. Stationary science also includes watching how wind moves soil particles and monitoring the Martian atmosphere.

Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004. They have been exploring for six years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission. Opportunity currently is driving toward a large crater called Endeavor and continues to make scientific discoveries. It has driven approximately 12 miles and returned more than 133,000 images.

Time is Running out for Spirit Rover

January 14, 2010

JPL just released this update on Spirit’s status and it doesn’t look good:

The list of remaining maneuvers being considered for extricating Spirit is becoming shorter. Results are being analyzed Wednesday, Jan. 13, from a drive on Sol 2143 (Jan. 12, 2010) using intentionally very slow rotation of the wheels. Earlier drives in the past two weeks using wheel wiggles and slow wheel rotation produced only negligible progress toward extricating Spirit.

The right-front wheel has not rotated usefully since Sol 2117 (Dec. 16, 2009). With the right-rear wheel also inoperable since Sol 2099 (Nov. 28, 2009), Spirit now drives with only four wheels.

Pending results of the latest drive, the rover team is developing plans for their final few attempts, such as driving backwards and using Spirit’s robotic arm to sculpt the ground directly in front of the left-front wheel, the only working wheel the arm can reach. Such activities may take several sols to implement, but time is getting short as winter approaches and the team needs to focus on Spirit’s winter survival.

The amount of energy that Spirit has each day is declining as autumn days shorten on southern Mars. If NASA does determine that the rover will not be able to get away from its current location, some maneuvers to improve the tilt toward the winter sun might be attempted.

I’m on downlink duty for Pancam this week, and I can say that watching each day tick by with, often, just fractions of a millimeter of progress is painful. The team is generally upbeat in the meetings, but there’s a sense of urgency and all eyes are on the calendar as we inch closer to dark days on Mars. Spirit has survived previous Martian winters, but that was with the rover tilted toward the sun to maximize the power available. Right now, Spirit’s tilt is not so good, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to fix it in time.

For more thoughts on the current predicament, head over to the Planetary Society blog.

Be a Martian!

November 17, 2009

Fact #1: As a Mars scientist, I am incredibly spoiled. There are so many missions to Mars right now sending back so much data, that even if they all went silent tomorrow, it would be decades before we managed to look at all the data and figure out what it’s telling us.

Fact #2: There are lots of people out there (I’m looking at you, loyal readers!) who would love to be able to actively participate in exploring Mars. I mean, have you seen the stuff that the folks at UnmannedSpaceflight have managed to put together? They do more with the data from Mars than a lot of scientists!

So, given those two facts, you can see why I think the new “Be a Martian” collaboration between NASA and Microsoft is a great idea. Check out this excerpt from the press release:

Drawing on observations from NASA’s Mars missions, the “Be a Martian” Web site will enable the public to participate as citizen scientists to improve Martian maps, take part in research tasks, and assist Mars science teams studying data about the Red Planet.

“We’re at a point in history where everyone can be an explorer,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “With so much data coming back from Mars missions that are accessible by all, exploring Mars has become a shared human endeavor. People worldwide can expand the specialized efforts of a few hundred Mars mission team members and make authentic contributions of their own.”

How cool is that? It’s a really brilliant idea, and I hope it goes well. A similar project was pioneered by galactic astronomers who had way too many pictures of galaxies to deal with, so they opened up the database to the public in the form of GalaxyZoo. It was a tremendous success, with thousands of people helping to classify millions of galaxies.

I just created my account and played around a bit, and it looks like a very user-friendly introduction to Mars science. You can contribute in two main ways: aligning images to contribute to a global map, and also counting craters. Both of these tasks can sort of be done by computers, but humans will always be better.

There’s more to the Be a Martian site than just work though, there are also lots of goodies like videos and Mars wallpapers, and great information about Mars. There is even a “movie theater” where you can watch the first few episodes of a series of videos called “The Martians”, that focus on people from all over the country who are involved with Mars, ranging from members of the rover teams to enthusiastic amateurs to actors putting on a play about Mars! There are more episodes on the way, and I encourage you to keep watching… you might see someone you recognize. ;)

Bottom line, it looks like a great site, and a great way to get involved in Mars exploration and learn about everyone’s favorite Red Planet and the people who are fascinated by it. What are you waiting for? Head on over and sign up! I’ll see you on Mars!

 

Crescent Earth, Water on the Moon, and Free Spirit!

November 15, 2009

Just a quick post to update you on the latest space news and remind you to keep voting for my article about how MSL is like James Bond.

First of all, the Rosetta spacecraft, on its way to a rendezvous with a comet in 2014, swung by Earth the other day, and took some beautiful pictures:

osiris_color_2009-11-12T12.28UTC_rot_north

Crescent earth as seen by the Rosetta probe.

Second, NASA held a press conference on friday announcing that the LCROSS mission to “bomb the moon” was successful and that they found evidence for hundreds of kilograms of water in the impact plume. This means that the south pole of the moon just got a lot more appealing, both because of the potential as a resource and because the water trapped in permanently shadowed craters could be billions of years old, preserving the history of the solar system much like the ice cores of Antarctica do for the Earth’s past. Check out the Planetary Society article on the discovery for more information.

Third, the rover drivers are finally preparing to extract Spirit from the sand trap where she has spent most of the summer! Once again, the Planetary Society blog has a good summary of the recent NASA press conference.

That’s all for now. I’m off to frantically write bad sci-fi so I can keep up with NaNoWriMo!

 

Ups And Downs for Spirit Rover

May 12, 2009
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.