Mars Rover Contact Reestablished, Spirit is Alive!

[/caption]Just when we were growing concerned that we might be losing two Mars surface missions within a week of each other, it turns out Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has survived its recent run-in with a Sun-dimming dust storm. On Tuesday, Nancy reported that Spirit had generated a record low power output from its solar panels, indicating the storm could drive Spirit’s energy levels to a point where an emergency fail-safe would switch the wheeled robot into a sunlight-deprived coma. Mission controllers sent Spirit commands to shut down non-essential instrumentation and instructed it not to communicate with NASA until today.

It would appear the rugged rover weathered the storm, expertly avoided a low-power fault and after four days of silence, sent the signal to NASA just as it was told to do. What an incredible little robot

One might think that using solar panels to collect light on a planet where Sun-blocking dust is a problem is a bit silly. After all, it seems the Phoenix Mars lander succumbed to an arctic dust storm-induced drained battery, and Spirit was also hit by the solar panel’s old foe, a dust storm in Gusev Crater. But the key point that needs to be remembered in both cases is that these missions operated far beyond their expected lifespan. Phoenix was only supposed to be digging into the Martian dirt for three months (it lasted five months), plus the lander had a pretty tough deadline to keep to: the loss of sunlight and the freezing cold of the onset of the northern winter. Phoenix knew its fate, but it was able to push into the dark and cold for a little longer…

However, Spirit’s fate was far from sealed. Usually the rover enjoys a full sol of daylight, day and night as regular as clockwork. This is another piece of NASA engineering that has surpassed every expectation there is. I doubt that any scientist would have said that a mission designed to operate for only three months, would be roving the Martian surface nearly five years later! So already, every minute Spirit (and its twin rover Opportunity on the other side of the planet) spends transmitting data from the Red Planet is a huge bonus.

However, MER scientists were not going to let Spirit drop dead due to a flat battery. When NASA realised Spirit was beginning to suffer, drawing much less power than was needed from its solar panels, action was taken. Firstly, some heaters were switched off (one heater protects the thermal emission spectrometer instrument from the cold), and Spirit was put on a strict low-energy consumption routine. This routine meant commanding Spirit not to attempt to communicate with Earth for four days, which was probably the most nerve-racking measure that could be taken; once communication is severed, who’s to say we’d ever hear from the rover again?

Even though engineers had stopped Spirit from communicating, they continued to listen, just in case Spirit dropped into a low-energy shutdown mode. However, no signal was received until today (Thursday), right when Spirit was scheduled to phone home. At mission control at JPL in Pasadena, CA, NASA engineers shouted “she’s talking,” when they got word that Spirit had made contact.

Although her batteries are low, the rover is still working and talking with NASA. Let’s hope Spirit holds on for a while longer…

Source: AP

18 Replies to “Mars Rover Contact Reestablished, Spirit is Alive!”

  1. A wonderful event, and very cheering. God bless the Martian rovers — they’ve outlasted every expectation and kept going and going and going and . . .

  2. They must have the energizer bunny with them (remember the Martian ‘bunny’ that was spotted early in the mission). Spirit and Opportunity have definitely outlasted their warranty and then some.

    Hail to the Red Planet Gladiators!!!

  3. NASA reports that the Deep Space Network picked up transmissions between Spirit and Opportunity regarding the apparent end of the Phoenix probe at five months. Only a few words were deciphered from the weak data transmissions, but NASA confirmed that “lightweight” and “pu**y” were among them.

  4. Glad to hear it working but how come the first rover in 1997 didn’t lasted long?

    Wished that they put the mic on Phoenix long time ago which they should had done so.

  5. @ jamie
    That is actually quite an interesting idea.
    They would have to design them in a way to prevent them from being jammed, considering the crazy dust storms that happen up there…

    Hopefully Phoenix will rise (as it should!) again to roam.
    Such a shame that it only lasted this long, and that NASA actually designed them for only lasting this long.
    Isn’t that a massive waste of money if they are designing them to last a few months?
    Why not next time, spend loads on a massive ship with a massive rover with loads of instruments, and have it sealed up nicely, to prevent it from ever failing from the nasties of Mars.
    They seem to have the landing-without-completely-destroying-it more-or-less mastered.
    And hell, throw in a nuclear generator backup just in case.

  6. Note to NASA: Duct-tape a can of compressed air to the next rover/probe. That way you can just blast the dust off!

  7. The Mars rover Sojourner which landed in 1997 wasn’t meant to last all that long, and yet it too survived past its warranty date. Pretty good for something the size of a microwave oven.

    In fact as I recall, it may have lasted longer than the lander station it came from, but it konked out and the problem was that the rover had to use it as a relay to talk to Earth.
    So it may have been circling the base for a while, waiting for a signal that never came.

    Steve Squyres said they thought the MERs would last past 90 days, but not much more than 120 to 180 days in reality. I think we got our money’s worth out of them and then some, don’t you?

    Too bad the rovers can’t drive north and bring Phoenix towards the equator.

    BTW, MRO should be able to watch Phoenix so we can see what happens to it, such as if its solar panels snap off from the weight of all the frozen carbon dioxide that will build up on them over the long winter.

    I bet ya the MERs will still be kicking (or is that rolling) when MSL lands in 2010.

  8. or some wind-shield style scrubbers to clean the solar panel array when needed ??!!

    Damn, automobils have those since like forever, how come a multi-million dolar experiment like this is missing some rather rudimentary pieaces of obvious hardware??

    I don’t get it….but hey, i’m happy as hell that these machines are sturdy enough to even make it so far so….yupieeeee goooo rovers….

  9. As I continue to read these stories of harrowing incidents with dust and solar panels, I wonder if NASA will incorporate some simple but robust mechanism in future landers (a digital feather duster?) to sweep or shake off such dust periodically. Or is it a demonstration of tech daftness to wonder why NASA failed to foresee this problem based on data and images from previous Mars landers?

  10. Wait, these rovers have no way of wiping off dust? Seriously?

    I think i will send a nice present to NASA this Christmas, some window wipers. =)

  11. Spirit and Opportunity are THE most successful mission ever sent to the Red Planet.

    They belong in the Planet Earth Space Exploration Hall of Fame.

    Here’s to the 2018 opposition of Mars!

  12. Most NASA missions exceed expected goals, which is a either a testimony to the complement of genius engineers they employ, or the possibility they misinform the press with a much bleaker outlook so that when things go better than reported they look like ‘miracle workers’ (a là Scotty from Star Trek).

    The Martian dust problem, like the moon’s, is unparalleled on Earth. The dust storms will inevitably generate static electrical charge which will cause dust particles to adhere fast to any surface they contact. Adding some kind of wiping mechanism to the solar panels would more likely just smear the abrasive dust, scratching the panels’ surfaces and reducing their ability to absorb sunlight.

    Some kind of vibratory mechanism would shake off larger particles but, again, would do nothing for the statically charged dust. Imagine you have coffee table in your attic, uncovered, for several years. If you were to grab it and hold it upside down and shake it violently, you’d liberate very little dust. A sharper, high frequency vibration wouldn’t do much better against static cling.

    Additionally, incorporating either a vibratory mechanism or wipers into the rovers would require more space and an unnecessary amount of moving parts that would increase the potential technical failure rates of the rovers. It would also increase power consumption every time the mechanisms were engaged.

    Using compressed gas is also out of the question, because hidden nozzles would have to incorporate moving parts like the previous two options, they would have limited use according to their capacity (and I certainly doubt mission designers would have allowed for a 5 year supply of gas canisters to maintain the panels), and would’ve decreased available space and increased the overall weight of the rovers’ design. Conversely, exposed nozzles would have undoubtedly gotten clogged during the first dust storm the rovers experienced.

    Quite to the contrary, the technical difficulties of employing and maintaining operational solar panels in such a hostile extraterrestrial environment are monumental and I sincerely doubt their design and implementation was arrived at lightly or underthought in any way by NASA’s engineers.

    What you can look forward to is to the arrival of the MSL on Mars, the first mobile platform platform to utilize RTGs as its power source, much like the Viking landers, which will then free it from much of the power issues experienced by the MERs’ solar panels. However, the dust storms will always be a threat to any mechanical instruments we employ on Mars as we still do not fully understand the extent of their power and can’t physically examine the equipment already employed there for any ill-effects they may have suffered as a result.

    Needless to say and despite all that’s occurred, these two little fellas have been an inspiration for years, they have more than lived up to their names, and in no way now can they fail because they have already defeated all contention thrown at them. If they both ‘died’ tomorrow, they still will not have failed at anything, which is something I’m quite sure cannot be said of very many machines, and even fewer people.

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