Mars Rover Finds More Evidence Of A Watery Past

Steve Squyres, principal investigator on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission, reports in Science that Opportunity's road trip to Victoria Crater revealed that the crater was shaped by water long ago. Meanwhile, the twin rover Spirit appears to be stuck.

NASA Rover Stuck In Flourlike Martian Soil

Mars rover Spirit slipped in soft ground in late April. i i

NASA's Mars rover Spirit slipped in soft ground during short backward drives in late April. Spirit used its front hazard-avoidance camera after driving to get this wide-angle view, which shows the wheel tracks in the soil. NASA/JPL-Caltech hide caption

itoggle caption NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mars rover Spirit slipped in soft ground in late April.

NASA's Mars rover Spirit slipped in soft ground during short backward drives in late April. Spirit used its front hazard-avoidance camera after driving to get this wide-angle view, which shows the wheel tracks in the soil.

NASA/JPL-Caltech
A NASA worker tries to re-create the soil consistency on Mars. i i

Back on Earth, NASA is working to re-create the soft Martian soil in which Spirit is stuck, so that they can test different maneuvers that might extricate the rover. Behind this worker is the rover replica the scientists will use to mimic the situation on Mars. NASA/JPL hide caption

itoggle caption NASA/JPL
A NASA worker tries to re-create the soil consistency on Mars.

Back on Earth, NASA is working to re-create the soft Martian soil in which Spirit is stuck, so that they can test different maneuvers that might extricate the rover. Behind this worker is the rover replica the scientists will use to mimic the situation on Mars.

NASA/JPL
A fuzzy picture of Mars rover Opportunity's underbelly. i i

This fuzzy image could actually help scientists extricate the Mars rover Spirit. Spirit's twin rover, Opportunity, took this picture of its own underbelly with a microscopic camera meant to take pictures of things less than 2 centimeters. Despite the blurriness, scientists can tell how the wheels are positioned, and if the underbelly is touching rocks. NASA/JPL hide caption

itoggle caption NASA/JPL
A fuzzy picture of Mars rover Opportunity's underbelly.

This fuzzy image could actually help scientists extricate the Mars rover Spirit. Spirit's twin rover, Opportunity, took this picture of its own underbelly with a microscopic camera meant to take pictures of things less than 2 centimeters. Despite the blurriness, scientists can tell how the wheels are positioned, and if the underbelly is touching rocks.

NASA/JPL

On Mars, a rover named Spirit has gotten stuck in soft, alien soil. About two weeks ago, its wheels dug into the Martian soil, and the plucky rover became trapped.

Spirit has been roaming the red planet for more than five years, but its roving days could be over unless scientists and engineers back on Earth can figure out how to get the robot unstuck.

Part of the problem is that the Martian soil isn't like the dirt in your backyard.

"It's a light, fluffy material. It's kind of like flour, and so you can't get much traction in that," says John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the project manager for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity.

Both of the rovers have gotten embedded in the Martian dunes before, he says, but this time it's trickier.

"Prior to this time," Callas says, "the worst embedding event for either rover was when Opportunity was caught in a dune, which we nicknamed 'purgatory dune.' " Opportunity eventually escaped from "purgatory," but Callas points out that it was a fully functioning, six-wheeled rover at that time.

This time, Spirit doesn't have six working wheels. The right front wheel has been broken for years, and the rover has limped along by driving backward, dragging the wheel. And now, another wheel has stopped turning. "There's some reason to suspect that a rock may be jammed in that wheel," Callas says.

It gets worse. Callas and his team also believe that Spirit may have dug so far down into the dirt that its little metal belly may be resting on some rocks.

This is a problem, Callas says, because as anyone who has ever driven an off-road vehicle on Earth knows, "if you get high-centered on a rock or a stump, you know that you're not getting traction on your wheels because the weight of the vehicle is now on the rock and not on the wheels, where you get your traction."

Saving Spirit

Callas and his team will try to take a picture of Spirit's wheels and underbelly using a camera on the rover's robotic arm that's really supposed to take microscopic photos of dirt. Opportunity was recently able to use this kind of camera to take a picture of its underbelly, so scientists are hopeful Spirit will be able to do the same.

NASA will also set up a special sandbox here on Earth to re-create the Martian landscape. Right now, they are working on re-creating the consistency of the soil on Mars, and then they'll stick an identical rover in the box to test possible ways of getting out.

These rescue plans will take weeks. And, Callas says, his team is emotionally attached to the rovers.

"You know, we talk to them each day. We interact with them, they're responsive to us, they exhibit personalities," Callas says. "When you discover that one of them is in trouble, then you become very worried, much like, you know, a person would become very worried about a dear relative if they suddenly became ill or were in a difficult situation."

If the Spirit rover remains entrenched in the soft Martian soil, that doesn't mean it's dead. It could still take pictures to send back to Earth and do other science that didn't require moving. But Spirit would not be a rover anymore.

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