On January 3rd, 2010, the Martian rover Spirit will have been on the surface of Mars for 6 years. At the time, NASA scientists hoped the rover would survive for its planned 90 day mission exploring the surface of Mars and sending data and pictures back to Earth. Instead, six years after it landed on Mars, the Martian rover Spirit is still in good working condition and continues to send back useful data from the red planet.
Mars Rover Spirit’s Photos Captures American Imagination
Shortly after its arrival on the surface of Mars, the Martian Rover Spirit captured the imagination and attention of the world with the first high resolution color images taken from the surface of another planet. Those photos showed, not canals, but a bleak rust-colored landscape punctuated by dark volcanic rocks scattered across the sands. Spirit’s later investigations showed strong evidence that those rocks had once been exposed to large quantities of liquid water, revealing the possibility that life could have developed on the red planet during its ancient past, with Martian microbes perhaps even surviving to this day beneath the surface.
Rover Spirit Facing Possibility of Death
It is, however, in danger of succumbing to the frigid temperatures of the Martian winter, according to NASA’s latest update. The problem is that Spirit is stuck in the equivalent of a Martian sand trap. In fact, the Martian rover has been mired in the same sandy spot for nine months. With one of Spirit’s six wheels out of commission and another operating only intermittently, the resilient rover has thus far been unable to escape the loose sand.
Motionless Rover Still Useful
Even if Spirit cannot break free from the sandy spot in which it is stuck, Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator for the Martian rovers, says it can still provide useful information if it can survive another winter on Mars. “We can study the interior of Mars, monitor the weather and continue examining the interesting deposits uncovered by Spirit’s wheels,” he said.
199 Degrees Below Zero
The problem is that the hapless Martian rover will need power to run its heaters in order to survive the winter. Without that power, Spirit is expected to finally stop functioning around May of 2010, around the Martian winter solstice. That power is generated by solar collectors which, in the rover’s current position, are not angled toward the sun enough to provide the needed power. Although able to survive the average surface temperature of 64 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the depths of winter can see temperatures more than 100 degrees cooler than that, reaching 199 degrees below zero at the poles, according to NASA data.
Last Ditch Efforts to Free Spirit
At present, NASA is exploring various strategies for either freeing the Martian Rover from the sand entirely, or trying to tilt it further toward the sun so that it can gather enough solar energy to survive in place. The latter strategy may mean using the rover’s wheels to dig one side of the rover deeper into the sand, tilting it toward the sun, but likely locking it in place permanently. If the angle can be increased sufficiently, the rover may yet survive to continue sending back information from Mars.
Mars Rover Opportunity Soldiers On
Whatever the results of those efforts, Spirit has proven itself to be far more reliable and resilient than anyone could have ever hoped when it first landed on Mars on January 3rd, 2004. Expected to live only 90 days, the Martian Rover proved so tough that the potential of its demise six years later, seems as remarkable as many of the discoveries it has made. Meanwhile, its twin rover Opportunity, continues to plod along with similar tenacity.
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NASA Press Release 09-0297. NASA. December 31, 2009. Retrieved from nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2009/dec/HQ_09-297_Mars_Rovers_Year6.html on December 31, 2009.Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Arrival Press Kit. NASA. March, 2006. Retrieved from nasa.gov/pdf/143619main_mro-arrival.pdf on December 31, 2009.