NASA to power Mars rover out of sand trap

Plans to free Spirit rover by sending commands

NASA's long running Mars rover is stuck in a sand trap – a situation the space agency would like to fix. So NASA will begin what it called the long process of extricating Spirit by sending commands that could free the rover.

Spirit has been stuck in a place NASA calls "Troy" since April 23 when the rover's wheels broke through a crust on the surface that was covering a bright-toned, slippery sand underneath. After a few drive attempts to get Spirit out in the subsequent days, it began sinking deeper in the sand trap. Driving was suspended to allow time for tests and reviews of possible escape strategies, NASA stated.

NASA said Spirit is straddling the edge of a 26-foot-wide crater filled with sulfate-bearing sands produced from hot water or steam. The buried crater lies mainly to Spirit's left. Engineers have plotted an escape route from Troy that heads up a mild slope away from the crater.

Spirit has six wheels but one of them has been inoperable since 2006. NASA said its first commands will tell the rover to rotate its five working wheels forward approximately six turns. Engineers anticipate severe wheel slippage, with barely perceptible forward progress in this initial attempt, NASA stated.

Form these first commands, Spirit relay data and results will be assessed before engineers develop and send commands for a second attempt. Using results from previous commands, engineers plan to continue escape efforts until early 2010, NASA said.

Being stuck in the sand hasn’t stopped Spirit from working. NASA said the rover has been mapping its Martian surroundings with tools on its robotic arm and its camera mast. The rover's work at Troy has augmented earlier discoveries it made indicating ancient Mars had hot springs or steam vents, possible habitats for life. If escape attempts fail, the rover's stationary location may result in new science findings, NASA stated.

Spirit has had other problems in the past year. Just this week NASA said Spirit is “suffering from the inability to access the on-board, non-volatile (flash) memory file system. However, the operations team has developed a strategy to allow science activities to continue.” In January, the rover failed to respond to instructions. NASA engineers fixed that problem within a few days. Then in April the rover rebooted itself without direction from its engineers.

While there have been those occasional glitches, Spirit and its twin rover Opportunity have been wildly successful. Since landing on the red planet in January 2004 they have explored Mars for five years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission, NASA said.

Mars exploration has been in the news a lot recently. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) said they are aiming to cooperate on all manner of robotic orbiters, landers and exploration devices for a future trip to Mars.

Specifically, NASA and ESA recently agreed to consider the establishment of a new joint initiative to define and implement their scientific, programmatic, and technological goals for the exploration of Mars. The program would focus on several launch opportunities with landers and orbiters conducting astrobiological, geological, geophysical, climatological, and other high-priority investigations and aiming at returning samples from Mars in the mid-2020s.

The European Space Agency meanwhile said it wants volunteers to take a simulated 520-day trip to Mars. Starting in 2010, an international crew of six will simulate a 520-day round-trip to Mars, including a 30-day stay on the Martian surface. The 'mission' is part of the Mars500 program being conducted by ESA and Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) to study human psychological, medical and physical capabilities and limitations in space through fundamental and operational research.

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