The Mars rover Spirit has driven almost 5 miles across the Martian surface, has climbed a hill as tall as the Statue of Liberty, and has generally kept on trucking for the five years since it landed on the planet, even though its mission was originally scheduled to last only 90 days. But its roving days could be over, unless its controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory can extricate it from a sticky situation: Spirit is stuck in the Martian sand. The rover was navigating around a low plateau en route to two volcanic features, Von Braun and Goddard, when it started rolling across the soft sand, and began to sink in. NASA controllers have tried a variety of maneuvers over the past few days in an attempt to extricate Spirit, but the rovers' wheels have only sunk deeper, and are now partially buried in the sand.
"This is quite serious," said JPL's John Callas, the project manager for Spirit and its twin, Opportunity. "Spirit is in a very difficult situation. We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again" [Los Angeles Times].
The situation is more complicated because one of the rover's front wheels hasn't worked for years due to an early malfunction; Spirit drives backwards everywhere it goes, tugging the broken wheel behind it. To get out of its current predicament, NASA controllers hope the other five wheels will provide enough traction. Controllers are also worried that Spirit's chassis could soon touch rocks underneath the sand. To plan a strategy for Spirit's escape, the controllers
will attempt to replicate the rover's plight in what is known as the "sandbox," a lab at JPL where scientists try to simulate conditions on Mars. "We're looking at re-landscaping the sandbox to re-create the situation," Callas said. "We can't send anyone to Mars, so we're bringing Mars to Earth" [Los Angeles Times].
Lately, Spirit has been showing its age. Last month, it suffered several bouts of amnesia and other problems including sudden computer reboots and failure to wake up when called on. Though the rover has since recovered, investigators still do not know the reason for its strange behavior [AP].
While researchers clearly hope to get the rover moving again, they note that even if Spirit can't be freed from its sand trap, it would still be able to make useful scientific observations about, for example, the composition of the soil it's stuck in. Related Content: 80beats: Mars Rover Spirit Shows Signs of Age, Including Senior Moments 80beats: Mars Rover’s Temporary “Amnesia” and Paralysis Puzzle NASA 80beats: The Little Rovers That Could Mark Their Fifth Anniversary on Mars 80beats: More Trouble on Mars: Spirit Rover Imperiled by Dust StormsImage: NASA/JPL-Caltech