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No Word Yet From Phoenix; Spirit’s Days May be Numbered

A look at the nearly buried wheels on the Spirit rover on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Not a peep yet from the Phoenix lander. The Mars Odyssey orbiter has completed all 30 relay overflights of the Phoenix landing site that were scheduled for Jan. 18 to 21, and heard nothing from the lander. Additional listening campaigns will be conducted in February and March. NASA has said repeatedly that hearing from the lander would be highly unlikely, as Phoenix was never designed to withstand the Martian arctic winters.

Meanwhile, the outlook isn’t brilliant for the Spirit rover, either.

Efforts to free the rover have barely budged it, and as the Martian autumn approaches, precious sunlight which provides power to the rover is declining each day. As of now, Spirit is tilted the wrong way to generate enough heat to make it through the winter, although the Free Spirit team is working to change the angle of her solar panels.

The rover team has now begun driving Spirit backward as the next technique for attempting to extricate the rover from the sand trap where it is embedded. The first two backward drives produced about 6.5 centimeters (2.6 inches) of horizontal motion and lifted the rover slightly.

However, the right-rear wheel is still non-functional, along with the right-front wheel (even though that wheel came back to life, briefly), and during a recent extrication drive attempt, the left middle wheel stalled. The team is working to get more diagnostic information about that wheel stall. Even with four working wheels, Spirit would have a very difficult path to get out of her predicament.

And rover fans must be continuing to suggest using the rover’s robotic arm to help push Spirit out, because the latest press release about Spirit included some back-of-the-envelope calculations about using the arm for just such an action. They figured out that by pushing with the arm, only about 30 newtons of lateral force could be achieved, while a minimum of several hundreds of newtons would be needed to move the rover. Further, such a technique risks damaging the arm and preventing its use for high-priority science from a stationary rover. The other technique of re-sculpting the terrain and perhaps pushing a rock in front of or behind the left-front wheel was also assessed to be of little to no help and, again, risks the arm. There is also a large risk of accidentally pushing the rock into the open wheel and jamming it.

When asked if he was discouraged about Spirit’s current situation, NASA’s lead scientist for the Mars exploration program, Michael Meyer said, “You gotta be joyful when something that was only supposed to operate for three months lasts over 6 years.”

A 3-D view of Opportunity's view as she leaves Marquette Island, created by Stu Atkinson. Image credit: NASA/JPL/ U of Arizona

The Opportunity rover, on the other side of Mars, continues her approximately 7 mile trek to Endeavour Crater. The rover left the rock called Marquette Island on Sol 2122 (Jan. 12, 2010), and has now crossed the 19-kilometer (11.8-mile) odometer mark. Amazing!

There is a relatively fresh impact crater that has been named “Conception,” and Oppy will stop to investigate, having to detour about 250 meters (820 feet) to the south.

Sources: JPL, NASA TV

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell January 21, 2010, 4:45 AM

    Phoenix is not likely to come back and I suspect Spirit is about to give up the ghost — so to speak. It is good to get every last meter and joule of effort from these devices, but in the end they need replacement if these programs are to continue.

    LC

  • Astrofiend January 21, 2010, 8:37 PM

    Wow – and so it would appear that Spirit’s journey will end. What a mission. What a testament to human genius; to NASA’s genius! What an incredible dividend this little thing has paid back to humanity!

    Salut!

  • lomitus January 22, 2010, 9:43 AM

    While the outlook may be rather grim here and both Spirit and Oppy have certainly exceeded everyone’s expectations, I think it would be so wonderful if the “plucky little rover that could” could keep on going. Personally I’m not ready to give up on Spirit just yet…and it doesn’t look like NASA has given up yet either. NASA has certainly pulled off some borderline miracles before…Voyager’s 2260 mile “putt” certainly comes to mind. Maybe Spirit will get lucky and one of those Martian winds will blow in just the right direction at just the right time and help get her out of this sand trap. As the old saying goes, “anything is possible”.

    My prayers and fondest wishes go out to NASA and Spirit in hopes that this isn’t the end as much as simply another learning experience!

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