Ok, Spirit Rover, Let’s Blow This Pop Stand!

On Monday, Nov. 16, NASA will begin transmitting commands to the Spirit rover on Mars to begin the extrication process to free the rover from where she has been stuck since April 23rd of this year. While members of the rover team have not given up on getting the rover to rove again, they were very guarded at a press conference Thursday in showing any optimism about removing Spirit from her predicament. “Spirit is facing the most challenging situation we have seen on Mars,” said Doug McCuistion director, Mars Exploration Program. “We know a lot of people view Spirit with great affection, and have followed along with the mission and seen new vistas and landscapes along with the rover to uncover new knowledge about our sister planet. But I want everybody to be realistic. This is a serious situation and if it cannot make the great escape from this sandtrap its likely this lonely spot might be where Spirit ends its adventures on Mars.”

John L. Callas, project manager for the rovers said the commands will be sent to Spirit on Monday night, the first drive will be executed early Tuesday, and they should find out later on Tuesday if any progress was made. But don’t expect anything to happen fast. “This is going to be like watching grass grow,” Callas said. “We’ll drive and then follow each drive with detailed analysis to see if it is on trend to what we are expecting. The reality is, we will see very little motion at least initially.”

Callas added that although the rover team has worked for months in the a test bed on Earth with an engineering model of the rover to develop a technique for extricating Sprit, there is no Earth analog for what is going on at Mars. “Spirit is on a planet with almost no atmosphere, 3/8 gravity of Earth, and a vehicle with hard metal wheels that only goes about 2 inches a second. We can’t rock back and forth and take advantage of momentum, and spin the wheels as we steer, like someone would do to get a stuck car out on Earth.”

Spirit's location. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Ohio State University/University of Arizona
Spirit's location. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Ohio State University/University of Arizona

The plan is to attempt to drive the rover forward, which is actually backward, since the rover was driving in reverse when it entered this area where it broke through a “duricrust” and fell through to the talcum powder-like soil. Rover driver Ashley Stroupe said going forward is better because the rover won’t have to break new ground; it will just follow the tracks back out. Plus, then the rover doesn’t have to climb vertically, and if it makes enough progress, eventually it will be heading downhill.

The team did have some good news to share: the “amnesia” Spirit has been experiencing with its flash memory may have been fixed, at least for now. The drive was reformatted and at appears to be working well.

The team said they would try working to remove the rover at least until February before throwing in the towel. A mission review is scheduled at that time.

However, if the rover is destined to remain in this spot forever, lead scientist Ray Arvidson says that’s not all bad. “No place is a nice place to be embedded, but this place is a geological treasure trove,” he said. “The soil is coarse sand with highest sulfate content we have found yet on Mars. Spirit is sitting astride a geological boundary, (see top image — they believe Spirit is sitting on the edge of a small impact crater) and it’s an exciting area to be in scientifically.”

Bright soil stirred up by the rover wheels. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Bright soil stirred up by the rover wheels. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Callas said the solar panels are currently at about 60% performance and if no big dust accumulation occurs, Spirit should be able to make it through the next winter if she remains where she is. “But if environmental things change, that could be a problem,” Callas said. “We’re ok now but we really have no margin on that.”

Stay tuned!

Stuck Spirit Rover Moves!

The Spirit Rover, which has had its wheels stuck for 145 Martian sols, has finally moved! Though she’s far from being extricated from her current position, this is the first time that she’s budged in quite a while. The Mars rover driving team is working on ways to get Sprit out, and this recent move was just them getting Spirit’s wheels in alignment for an upcoming procedure to free her from the sand trap she’s stuck in. But it’s a start!

As Emily reported over at the Planetary Society Blog, this is the “First drive sequence in 145 sols”, according to the rover driver Scott Maxwell on Twitter. The team is getting ready to start extricating Spirit.

The rover team has been working diligently on ways to get Spirit free from the sand that the rover has been stuck in since April. Given that the rover has been having memory problems – the most recent was October 30th – this will be an extraordinary challenge.

Here are some more animations of Spirit’s most recent move:

This is from Spirit's forward hazcam, from sols 2078 and 2079. You can see the buried wheel in the bottom left portion of the image. Credit: NASA / JPL / animation by Damien Bouic
This is from Spirit's forward hazcam, from sols 2078 and 2079. You can see the buried wheel in the bottom left portion of the image. Credit: NASA / JPL / animation by Damien Bouic
Spirit's right rear hazcam from sols 2072 to 2078. Image Credit: NASA / JPL / animation by fredk
Spirit's right rear hazcam from sols 2072 to 2078. Image Credit: NASA / JPL / animation by fredk

NASA will be giving out further details of their plan at a press conference this Thursday, November 12th , so be sure and check back here for more specific information on the escape plan for Spirit!

Source: Planetary Society Blog

MER Team Prepares to Extract Spirit

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To prepare for an actual attempt to extract the Spirit rover from its sand-trapped predicament, engineers using test rovers on Earth have added a new challenge. Until last week, those commanding and assessing drives by the test rovers were usually in the same room as the sandbox setup simulating Spirit’s predicament, where they can watch how each test goes. That changed for the latest preparation, called an operational readiness test.

The team members commanding drives by a test rover last week stayed away from the building with the sandbox. They assessed the results of each commanded drive only from the images and other data communicated from the test rover, the same way the team does for daily operations of the rovers that are on Mars.

“We conducted this round of testing under more flight-like conditions to test the team’s ability to make very complex extraction driving decisions using only the data sent back from the rover,” said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The test began on Oct. 12 and ran five days on an accelerated schedule of two Martian days’ worth of commanding every day. The rover team also operated both Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, while conducting this readiness test at JPL.

Spirit became embedded in soft soil at a site called “Troy” five months ago, more than five years into a mission on Mars that was originally scheduled to last for three months. The rover team suspended further driving attempts with Spirit while evaluating possibilities from tests performed at JPL simulating the Troy situation.

Current plans call for an independent panel to review Spirit driving plans in late October, following analysis of results from the readiness test. Unless that review recommends any further preparations, Spirit will probably begin extraction moves within two weeks after the review.

Spirit has spent much of its time at Troy actively examining its surroundings, including analysis of layered soil at the site. In September, a new issue began affecting operations. Data from Spirit indicated that a brake on the motor that rotates the rover’s dish-shaped high-gain antenna was not working correctly. The team has been getting more diagnostic data and developing a work-around strategy similar to work-arounds already used for rover-motor brakes that showed similar symptoms earlier.

Source: JPL

Spirit’s Psychedelic Visions

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The Spirit rover has had memory problems, arthritic-like symptoms in her wheels, as well as her current dilemma of being stuck in loose Martian soil. But now, is she having psychedelic visions, too?! No, not to worry; she’s not having hallucinations or smoking any mind-altering Martian weed. This image is just a combination of three images taken seconds apart through different colored filters to create a special-effects portrait of a huge, moving dust devil on Mars. It shows the dust devil in different colors, according to where it was on the horizon when each exposure was taken. 

Images from May 27, 2009 of a huge dust devil near Spirit.  Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/ASU
Images from May 27, 2009 of a huge dust devil near Spirit. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/ASU

Amazingly, Spirit has recorded over 650 dust devils during her mission on Mars. This one is a whopper. Dust devils occur most frequently during the Martian springtime, when solar energy heats the surface, resulting in a layer of warm air just above the surface. Since the warmed air is less dense than the cooler atmosphere above it, it rises, making a swirling thermal plume that picks up the fine dust from the surface and carries it up into the atmosphere.

The rover team is working on creating a large color panorama of the area and these are three of the shots, which happened to catch the dust devil in action. The dust devils are interesting, and also have provided enough breeze to clean off Spirit’s solar panels, giving her a huge boost in energy. She’s been staying awake at night, taking astronomical images while stuck in her current location at “Troy.”

Back on Earth, the attempts to “Free Spirit” are proceeding at JPL. Using the engineering rover in a simulated test bed, engineers are trying out different ways to move the rover to best get her out, including a crablike backward drive, with the wheels turned indifferent directions. Keep current with the ongoing tests at the Free Spirit website.

Sources: JPL, Free Spirit

Test-Bed Rover is Now Stuck — Which is a Good Thing!

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Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have intentionally driven their engineering rover into soft soil in a sandbox testbed, to simulate how the Spirit rover is stuck on Mars. And they did a good job of it, too, as the test rover, called SSTB1, is stuck, as well, with its wheels spinning and going nowhere. The science team has confirmed a rock on Mars, underneath Spirit is touching the underside of the rover, so engineers have placed a similar looking rock in the test sandbox, as seen above.

“We want to experiment with different extraction techniques down here on Earth before we actually do them for real on Mars,” said John Callas, project manager for the Mars rovers. “Our expectation is that it will some time to get Spirit out, so we will be able to get a better feel for that here in this facility to see how well the techniques work and how long it will take for them to work.”

The rover team spent several days of preparing a sloped area of soft, fine soil to simulate Spirit’s current sandtrap on Mars. On June 30 they maneuvered the test rover around, driving the wheels to the loose soil where the rover would sink and slide to the side, with a slope of about 10 degrees, as engineers believe Spirit has done on Mars.

You can follow the work being done to free Spirit from her predicament at the Free Spirit website. JPL regularly posts updates and videos showing what the rover teams are doing, and currently you can see a movie of how the test rover was driven in the sandbox to get stuck.

A test rover rolls off a plywood surface into a prepared bed of soft soil.  Credit: JPL
A test rover rolls off a plywood surface into a prepared bed of soft soil. Credit: JPL

There are actually two test vehicles, and the folks at UnmannedSpaceflight.com have a page explaining the differences, as well as other FAQs about the attempts to free Spirit. The one being use for this current test, SSTB1 is a full size replica of the MER vehicles, but it has a few differences such as no solar panels, and a few other minor missing parts. It has the same mass as the ones on Mars, which means it has a higher weight on Earth than the MERs have on Mars.

The other test rover, SSTB Lite, is a stripped down vehicle with same wheel size, actuators and suspension system, but has other major components missing which gives it a weight on Earth that is similar to the weight of MER on Mars. However, when the Opportunity rover was stuck a couple of years in the Purgatory dune, engineers found that SSTB1 behaved more similarly to the MER vehicles, possibly because both the SSTB1 and the soil were subject to the same gravity vector.

Mosaic of the area around Home Plate where Spirit remains stuck was made especially for Spaceflight Now (Used by permission).  Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco DiLorenzo, NASA/JPL/Cornell/Spaceflight Now.  Click for larger image.
Mosaic of the area around Home Plate where Spirit remains stuck was made especially for Spaceflight Now (Used by permission). Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco DiLorenzo, NASA/JPL/Cornell/Spaceflight Now. Click for larger image.

So, just where is Spirit on Mars? Take a look at this great image created by Ken Kremer and Marco DeLorenzo of UnmannedSpaceflight.com, showing Spirit’s current location. It shows smooth area in the foreground, that concealed slippery water related sulfate material where rover became stuck. Once free, Spirit will drive to area near the unusually capped hill ahead designated Von Braun to sample water related evidence there. Let’s hope the engineer’s work here on Earth will “Free Spirit” and enable explorations of Von Braun, and beyond.

Caption for mosaic above: Mosaic of the area around Home Plate where Spirit remains stuck was made especially for Spaceflight Now (Used by permission). Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco DiLorenzo, NASA/JPL/Cornell/Spaceflight Now. Click the picture for a larger image.

Sources: “Free Spirit” website, Unmanned Spaceflight, Spaceflightnow.com

Spirit Rover Begins Making Night Sky Observations

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When your rover has abundant energy but can’t go anywhere, what’s a scientist to do? How about making observations of the evening and night skies on Mars? With the benefit of a boost in electrical power from a wind gust cleaning off her solar panels, the Spirit rover has more energy available than she’s had for a couple of years. But unfortunately, Spirit is stuck in a patch of loose soil in the Home Plate region on Mars. While the engineers at JPL work hard at figuring out how to “Free Spirit” (see the new website dedicated to their efforts) scientists are making observations of her surroundings to aid in the effort to get her out. But there’s also enough power to do additional observations, and astronomy was a logical choice. “Certainly, a month or more ago, no one was considering astronomy with the rovers,” said Mark Lemmon, planetary scientist at Texas A&M University and member of the rover team. “We thought that was done. With the dust cleanings, though, everyone thinks it is better to use the new found energy on night time science than to just burn it with heaters.” Besides, Lemmon added, using all the energy in the daytime might lead to overheating.

The image above was taken on Spirit’s sol 1943 (June 22 on Earth)showing the night sky above her location.

But most of the “stars” in this raw image are not really stars, just hot pixels. “We use long and multiple exposures to make stars stand out,” Lemmon told Universe Today. “We can only see bright stars, looking through the dust, but can pick out most of the major stars in Orion for instance.”

But a star is visible in this image. “That streak in the 1943 images is the bright star Canopus,” said Jim Bell, planetary scientist at Cornell University and lead for the rovers’ Pancam team. “We’re monitoring stars to search for evidence of night-time clouds, fog, and hazes.  We’re also occasionally trying to image Earth and Venus as they set in the west after sunset.  We’ve had some success, but the twilight sky is so bright we’re still working on tweaking the exposure times.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time Spirit has done astronomy on Mars. She also made night sky observations back in 2005. In an article Bell wrote for Sky and Telescope in 2006 he described Spirit’s astronomy as “stone-knives and bear-skins backyard astronomy–but from Mars!” And certainly, this is exciting to have an additional opportunity to make astronomical observations from the surface of another world.

Spirit's twilight observations from sol 1947. Credit: NASA/JPL
Spirit's twilight observations from sol 1947. Credit: NASA/JPL


Bell added that the current astronomy campaign with Spirit has many similarities with the one four years ago, and Lemmon said they are focusing on a few different goals for looking at the twilight and night skies.

“The Canopus images may become a regular occurrence, as a way to monitor dust and/or ice in the sky at night–much as we use Sun images in the day,” Lemmon said. “For something like that, we can pick an aim (Canopus, Orion, etc.) and choose filters. We might use color filters to look for any differences that show up, or the clear filter for the most sensitive measurement. Star exposures can go up to 5.5 minutes (compare to 0.1-0.5 sec for a normal day image). We cannot track stars, so they trail after 10 seconds or so–as you see Canopus doing. In longer exposures, hot pixels and cosmic rays show up as points or cluster of light.”

Lemmon said attempting to image Earth and Venus has been challenging. “We’ve imaged both before, farther from the Sun. They are in the twilight, limiting the exposure we can use, and they are in a “bright” part of the sky.”

Lemmon added his personal favorite right now is actually the twilight imaging — not looking at stars but at how fast the twilight glow fades after sunset. “That is proving to be quite helpful in terms of understanding the distribution of dust in the atmosphere –which is closely tied to how weather works on Mars,” he said.

In 2005, the Pancam team was able to capture images of Mars’ two moons, Phobos and Deimos. “They are much brighter and let us use more filters if desired. We may pick this up again. I’m a fan of eclipse imaging, so we would need several quick images to see how fast the moon fades as sunlight is blocked by dust around Mars.”

The moons should start becoming more visible soon, and Lemmon said they will continue to take more images of Canopus and maybe other star fields. The team is not specifically looking for meteors or the orbiters around Mars, but there’s always the prospect of something fascinating showing up on future images.

“We’ve taken some recent images I hope will have new, interesting things in them,” Lemmon said. “But they are still on board the rover so we’ll have to wait and see what they show later.”

Stay tuned!

Link to Spirit’s raw images.

Webpage on Spirit’s 2005 astronomical imaging.

Sources: email exchanges with Mark Lemmon and Jim Bell

No Humanoid on Mars, Just Rocks

Okay, once and for all, let’s make this clear. In the words of our esteemed Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, “repeat after me:” A humanoid was not photographed on the surface of Mars. And NASA is not covering up this photo in the name of national security. Furthermore, human missions to Mars have not been cancelled because of this photo. These outrageous notions keep popping up in the media. The photograph, which was taken by Spirit, one of the Mars Exploration Rovers, is just another example of pareidolia, our ability to see patterns in random shapes.

As happens frequently, people tend to see faces or human forms in things like clouds, wood grain, and pancakes. This is only an optical illusion. If you need proof of this, for those of you in the US, look at one of the state-themed quarters from New Hampshire. There you can see the Man in the Mountain, a case of pareidolia that became an historic site (which has since crumbled.)

The photo shown here is the very large panoramic image from which a teeny, tiny rock formation was found that looks kind of human-like. Someone had to be looking really close to see it, as the rock formation is only about 6 centimeters high, and in the image you can also see a hill that’s over 8 kilometers (5 miles) away.

If you have any doubts in your mind that this is nothing more than just a very small, unusual rock formation, please, please, please see Emily Lakdawalla’s thorough explanation of the image at the Planetary Society’s website, which includes 3-D pictures that really make it clear this is not a humanoid. It’s a rock with a funny shape. And Phil the Bad Astronomer has more info on it as well here and here.

And, okay, here’s the really zoomed in image crop that has caused such a hubbub. Just remember how small this rock really is.
tiny detail from a panorama taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit on sol 1,366-1,369 (November 6-9, 2007) of its position on the eastern edge of Home Plate. Credit: NASA / JPL / Cornell

The Spirit Rover’s Big Discovery

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Amazingly, the two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been working diligently on the surface of the Red Planet for almost four years now. So far, Opportunity has grabbed most of the spotlight, finding evidence for past water on Mars within months after landing on the smooth plains of Meridiani Planum. While Spirit has been working just as hard, if not harder, climbing hills and traversing the rocky terrain of Gusev Crater, she hasn’t yet caused quite the stir that her twin has. But now, a recent discovery by Spirit at an area called Home Plate has researchers puzzling over a possible habitat for past microbial organisms.

What Spirit found is a patch of nearly pure silica, a main ingredient in window glass.

“This concentration of silica is probably the most significant discovery by Spirit for revealing a habitable niche that existed on Mars in the past,” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the rovers’ science payload.

The silica could have been produced from either a hot-spring type of environment or another type of environment called a fumarole, where acidic steam rises through cracks in the planet’s surface. On Earth, both of these types of environments teem with microbial life.

“The evidence is pointing most strongly toward fumarolic conditions, like you might see in Hawaii and in Iceland,” said Squyres. “Compared with deposits formed at hot springs, we know less about how well fumarolic deposits can preserve microbial fossils. That’s something needing more study here on Earth.”

Squyres said the patch that Spirit has been studying is more than 90 percent silica, and that there aren’t many ways to explain such a high concentration. One way is to selectively remove silica from the native volcanic rocks and concentrate it in the deposits Spirit found. Hot springs can do that, dissolving silica at high heat and then dropping it out of solution as the water cools. Another way is to selectively remove almost everything else and leave the silica behind. Acidic steam at fumaroles can do that. Scientists are still assessing both possible origins.

One reason Squyres favors the fumarole story is that the silica-rich soil on Mars has an enhanced level of titanium. On Earth, titanium levels are relatively high in some fumarolic deposits.

Meanwhile both rovers are hunkering down for another winter season on Mars. Spirit’s solar panels are currently coated with dust from the huge dust storm the rovers endured this summer, and Spirit will need to conserve energy in order to survive the low light levels during the winter.

“The last Martian winter, we didn’t move Spirit for about seven months,” said John Callas, project manager for the rovers. “This time, the rover is likely to be stationary longer and with significantly lower available energy each Martian day.”

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for another solar panel cleaning windstorm event, which has happened previously, giving the rovers a boost in power.

Original News Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory News Release