When NASA’s Mars Rover Spirit first landed on the Red Planet six years ago, it began a journey of discovery that has come to a frigid standstill as thousands of man hours may have finally come to an end now that temperatures in the region threaten to dip 150 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
Since April the almost 400 lb device has been mired in sand no thicker than baking flour. With two of the six wheels not working, the rover has found it difficult to move its massive bulk in the harsh unforgiving terrain. There wasn’t much hope for the solar array to move the few degrees required to move the panels toward the sun and get the most important components to the rover heated up so it will survive the harsh winter. And unfortunately, it appears the six year continuing journey has finally reached its end.
John Callas, who managed the project for the Spirit project along with its sister project “Opportunity,” was still hoping for a last minute miracle, such as a sudden gust of wind hitting the panels just right in a way that would blow the panels clean of dust.
Of course, though Spirit has finally fried, or rather frozen, it certainly couldn’t have picked a better place to do so. Callas compared the disabled Spirit to “your car breaking down next to Disney World.” It sounds like the annual $20 million spent on the rovers are still unlikely to find themselves on the chopping block when the program undertakes its next yearly review coming up, considering how many millions the devices took to get to the red planet to begin with. In addition, the project has been far more successful than even Callas had expected, sending back interesting data of geological features and taking photographic data of the surface. Its companion on the other side of Mars is still snapping pictures and doing quite well at retaining its mobility.
And there are the many within the project who still say Spirit will be able to make incredible observations from beyond the grave. Though the lack of a functional mobility device on the Spirit will make it impossible for the observer to move reliably (if at all), it will still continue to stream data to Earth of the fascinating landscape it is currently mired in. Winter on Mars lasts over twice as long as it does on Earth, so it may be quite some time before we know conclusively if the rover is merely frozen in place, or if contracting components or freezing moisture have damaged the rover permanently.
The rover is being hailed as one of several successes NASA has had in recent years, and if there is one thing NASA has been good at, it’s getting every nickel’s worth out of failing components. This principle, you may remember, was enacted when the LCROSS smashed into the Lunar surface to confirm Chandrayaan’s observations that the surface of the moon had considerable amounts of water present on it. Perhaps Spirit will likewise surprise us with an incredible last minute discovery that will ensure future funding for replacement rovers and additional projects like it.