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Our Martian Photographer Is Stuck In Sand

Spirit, our poor little Mars rover, has been stuck in sand for the past six months with a broken front wheel. But NASA has a rescue plan. Joe Palca has the story on All Things Considered today, so be sure to tune in.

The fact that Spirit has even lasted this long is quite the technological marvel. Its mission was designed to last 90 days, but the craft will celebrate its six-year anniversary in January. In that time, Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, have captured more than a quarter-million images.

  • NASA's Spirit rover found an angular piece of volcanic lava that proves to be a great choice for a photographic study of Martian light and shadow.
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    NASA's Spirit rover found an angular piece of volcanic lava that proves to be a great choice for a photographic study of Martian light and shadow.
    Photos courtesy of NASA/JPL/Cornell University
  • The shadow of the camera mast against a background of sand, rocks and a small dust-filled impact crater makes for a nice self-portrait of the Spirit rover.
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    The shadow of the camera mast against a background of sand, rocks and a small dust-filled impact crater makes for a nice self-portrait of the Spirit rover.
  • While driving over the reddish rocks and soils of Mars, the rover's wheels dig below the thin dusty layer and reveal the darker, brownish soils below. The circular tracks are "pirouettes" that the rovers occasionally do to align their radio antennas for best possible communications.
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    While driving over the reddish rocks and soils of Mars, the rover's wheels dig below the thin dusty layer and reveal the darker, brownish soils below. The circular tracks are "pirouettes" that the rovers occasionally do to align their radio antennas for best possible communications.
  • Spirit rover watches a Martian sunset. The daytime sky is reddish-brown because it holds so much suspended dust. The same dust turns the sky bluish at sunset.
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    Spirit rover watches a Martian sunset. The daytime sky is reddish-brown because it holds so much suspended dust. The same dust turns the sky bluish at sunset.
  • A view from high in Mars' Columbia Hills, looking over Spirit's right solar panel "wing" and down into the Tennessee Valley. Just like on Earth, hills and ridges on Mars are windy places. The wind creates sand dunes and scours rocks, and it sometimes even cleans the dust off the rover's solar panels — increasing the electrical power and longevity of the mission.
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    A view from high in Mars' Columbia Hills, looking over Spirit's right solar panel "wing" and down into the Tennessee Valley. Just like on Earth, hills and ridges on Mars are windy places. The wind creates sand dunes and scours rocks, and it sometimes even cleans the dust off the rover's solar panels — increasing the electrical power and longevity of the mission.
  • Among the most surprising discoveries from the Opportunity rover were these small, spherical, ball-bearing-sized grains of rock that litter the ground by the millions. These are iron-rich mineral grains most likely precipitated out of ancient near-surface water on Mars. The Rover Science team dubbed these little grains "blueberries."
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    Among the most surprising discoveries from the Opportunity rover were these small, spherical, ball-bearing-sized grains of rock that litter the ground by the millions. These are iron-rich mineral grains most likely precipitated out of ancient near-surface water on Mars. The Rover Science team dubbed these little grains "blueberries."
  • Once in a while the rovers are commanded to dig a trench with their wheels, so scientists can study the shallow subsurface. This trench, about 3 inches deep, was dug out right next to the rover's landing platform. The rover's robotic arm is extended, readying its instruments to make chemical measurements inside the trench.
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    Once in a while the rovers are commanded to dig a trench with their wheels, so scientists can study the shallow subsurface. This trench, about 3 inches deep, was dug out right next to the rover's landing platform. The rover's robotic arm is extended, readying its instruments to make chemical measurements inside the trench.
  • The setting sun casts a long rover shadow as Opportunity prepares to drive down into Endurance crater, a stadium-sized hole in the ground filled with sand dunes and layered rocks.
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    The setting sun casts a long rover shadow as Opportunity prepares to drive down into Endurance crater, a stadium-sized hole in the ground filled with sand dunes and layered rocks.
  • This "false color" view of sand dunes at the bottom of Endurance crater is scientifically useful for distinguishing among iron-bearing minerals within the sand. The rover cameras can see farther into the ultraviolet and infrared than human eyes can. Scientists use that capability to create false color images of Martian terrain.
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    This "false color" view of sand dunes at the bottom of Endurance crater is scientifically useful for distinguishing among iron-bearing minerals within the sand. The rover cameras can see farther into the ultraviolet and infrared than human eyes can. Scientists use that capability to create false color images of Martian terrain.
  • Meridiani Planum, home to the Opportunity rover, is a vast plain dominated by 8- to 12-inch sandy dunes and ripples that go on and on for as far as the rover's "eyes" can see.
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    Meridiani Planum, home to the Opportunity rover, is a vast plain dominated by 8- to 12-inch sandy dunes and ripples that go on and on for as far as the rover's "eyes" can see.
  • Opportunity's "footprint" in the crusty, "blueberry"-covered sands of Meridiani Planum, Mars, on mission Day 605.
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    Opportunity's "footprint" in the crusty, "blueberry"-covered sands of Meridiani Planum, Mars, on mission Day 605.
  • The Spirit rover's right front wheel motor died about two years into the mission. However, the bad luck of decreased mobility ended up turning into good fortune, because the stuck wheel created a 6-inch-wide trench that dug up bright, salty, hydrated soils that would not have been discovered otherwise. These water-bearing deposits reveal that this part of Mars was very likely more Earth-like at...
    Hide caption
    The Spirit rover's right front wheel motor died about two years into the mission. However, the bad luck of decreased mobility ended up turning into good fortune, because the stuck wheel created a 6-inch-wide trench that dug up bright, salty, hydrated soils that would not have been discovered otherwise. These water-bearing deposits reveal that this part of Mars was very likely more Earth-like at one time.

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Jim Bell, professor of astronomy at Cornell, was in charge of primary camera photography for the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions to Mars and put many of those photos in a book, Postcards From Mars. He was the first to take on the painstaking task of editing, cropping and processing these images, many of which are larger than 100 megabytes! They provide a unique view of what life is like on Mars, even from a sand trap.

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