By John Herrman
Posting in Government
After six years, two crippling wheel breakages and months of forced sleep, NASA's feistiest rover still isn't ready to give up.
Where a scientist sees an overstretched mission with a glimmer of remaining potential, a romantic sees a broken little rover with a big heart. The Mars Spirit, a rover that finally lost its mobility after a mission that had lasted nearly 25 times longer than intended, has been handed a new job.
The rover's new mission, as reported by Discovery News, came about because of the probe's poor state, not despite of it. It just so happens that the location at which the Spirit lost the use of some of its wheels happens to be geologically interesting. Interesting enough, apparently, that it could serve as a stationary lab for at least one more mission.
The mission will analyze the soil that caused the Spirit to get stuck in the first place, a fine sand which rover scientist Steve Squyers reportedly described in a strategy session last week as "bizarre," and "fascinating in its chemistry and mineralogy." Squyers hopes to find evidence that this sand is sediment, deposited by every Mars researcher's favorite molecule: H20.
Even without a groundbreaking revelation about recent Martian water flows, the mission could prove valuable. At minimum, this soil is unique and under-examined; if not sediment, it's merely an interesting soil sample that'll get an unprecedented level of attention.
Others propose that the rover could be useful for its (unintended) stillness. Regularly spaced signals from its communications equipment could help form more complete understanding of the planet's exact rotational habits, which would answer questions about the mass and substance of its core.
The missions won't be easy, mainly because nobody knows if the rover can even wake up. The Spirit has been in peaceful repose since March, when the Martian seasons deprived its essential systems their solar power needs, and the probe won't see significant sunlight until next month. In theory, the Spirit should be able to charge back up in a few months. In practice, well, this thing rumbled off the launch pad all the way back in 2003. It's old, it's been through a lot, and its team worries that its vital systems might not have survived the harsh winter.
In any case, for the last five years, any new data coming from the rover has been bonus material--its initial mission was just three months. And if, Cosmos forbid, the Spirit doesn't blink back to life this year, it won't have died in vain. It's sister rover, Opportunity, is still very much active, and NASA as just announced its next mission to Mars. The MAVEN spacecraft will join its fallen brother as soon as 2014.
Image courtesy of NASA
Oct 6, 2010
If possible ... put the stuck rover in a timed sleep. Then wait. With the odd and unpredictable wind patterns on Mars, maybe several of the dirt devils or just a good high/low pressure wind will blow away enough of the sand/dirt from around the rover to let it move again ... next Spring Mars Time. Yet ... as a stationary weather station, it could also infom NASA if such a weather pattern is possible to do as I just described.
@ttheys@... No, I'm really happy they did succeed going to Mars and exploring it for so long and I congratulate them all for that -I would sake their hands if I could (although, only a small fraction of what they've found there will get to the public). I personally have even got a documentary to watch on this subject... But that doesn't mean we all should automatically say "you did everything perfect" just because they made it, without any constructive criticism, That's what the comments are for.
Wow Administrator. You just prove the axiom "you can't make everyone happy". Maybe you should send them your resume since you seem to be the expert.
@kevinrs1 "Legs are complicated..." It's almost a sin to say that legs are complicated in 2010, especially for a project of such caliber -it would be acceptable to say that for a school project, not for a serious company or Nasa. In sort, no they aren't, if the design is innovative enough and highly optimized -as it should. Having feedback from the ground is easy (of course they should rely on feedback). To avoid get stuck in sand, just increase the foot area. Even with the same area, it would sink 10 times less than a spinning tire. Now think about climbing up hill, on a flat solid surface and compare the active wheel surface vs the foot surface. The foot surface could also be adaptive (with nails etc) -something you can't do with wheels. "they have been tested over many years, with competitions for students etc, trying to find the best possibly wheels, and that's the best performing that has been found, a metal wheel of similar style to what they used." If they did so, then the project was based on school standards. Quantity and immaturity guarantees nothing. "Trying to find the best possibly wheels" is their first mistake -the worst mistake you can make on a research project: To pre-assume what "will work" and therefore limit your research with your own assumption! "it just doesn't work" Remember your phrase the next time you see leg-based explorers. @zackers "Since they lasted 25 times their expected life, I'd call them a spectacular success and a brilliant compromise." If I make a bicycle and say it will last one week, then if it lasts 6 months it will be a spectacular success?
According to a story I read the other day, the wheels were a compromise. There was no way to make them bigger and still make the space limitations of the launch vehicle. Something was going to give out sooner or later. Opportunity might die because of something else; we will then lament that? With Spirit it happened to be the wheels. Since they lasted 25 times their expected life, I'd call them a spectacular success and a brilliant compromise.
Legs are complicated, with many more points of failure, and to assume that legs mean it couldn't get stuck, if it's not automatically going to try to keep going, each step would have to wait for confirmation from earth. If it doesn't wait, what happens when a leg sinks 6 inches into the sand unexpectedly, then the other legs are lifted driving the sunk one further down, moved, digging the sand, etc, it just doesn't work.
what, you think the tires should look like knobby balloon monster truck tires? Normal rubber would have degraded before even reaching mars, even synthetics wouldn't be able to take the chemistry and temperature changes. Looking at a small, lightweight, slow vehicle, in a hostile environment, those are the kind of wheels you get, they have been tested over many years, with competitions for students etc, trying to find the best possibly wheels, and that's the best performing that has been found, a metal wheel of similar style to what they used.
Reminds me of an anonymous user's edit of the XKCD Spirit cartoon: http://imgs.xkcd.com/blag/spirit_rewrite_unknown_author.png
Nasa should have designed them as vehicles capable to go everywhere. Low speed and suspension in combination with tiny wheels cannot guarantee this. Temperature endurance is a different subject. The best bet would be to have legs vs wheels. It wouldn't rely on friction to move so it wouldn't slip or stuck. It would have also saved energy each time it met a rock or other ground anomalies by not making maneuvers to avoid them.
I love this story. It is a story to tell children at night - the story of how humans are exploring the solar system and this little machine did 25 times more work for humanity than was even planned. Wow! What creativity by the team which is a team of one machine on our neighboring planet and many human beings back on Earth. Children would relate very well to this story of a voyage and how the machine did heroic things. And how it now, on its 'deathbed' will do, we hope, one last piece of work to help us understand if Mars really did once have a lot of that wonder molecule, Water. Bring the story back to every child's experience of sipping some water and the whole thing comes to life in a magical way. Thus we can educate our kids to learn about their fabulous watery home planet via another now dessicated one, to feel wonder and excitement - in short, to feel deeply about their existence within this dynamic wonderful cosmos. This is what I hope gets done eventually with this incredible mission. A lovely children's book to inspire our kids. Can I write it?! Would love to.
The criticism of the wheel design is misplaced. The wheels on a HMMWV, for example, would look much smaller without pneumatic tires. The suspension on the front wheels & the max speed of about 1.1 mph combine to make big wheels a luxury the Spirit did not need. The Spirit has lasted many times longer than originally intended in extremes of temperature that would deadline the toughest earthbound vehicle in minutes.
Obviously not even the designers had confidence about their mechanical design. Even if it did survive so far, it doesn't mean it didn't have it's shortcomings all these years. Obviously it couldn't go everywhere with these pathetic wheels and finally one of them was damaged... in sand! It's beyond me how Nasa did accept such a limited design for their Mars mission. Are they short of innovative engineers? And I'm only talking about the mechanical design -not electronics.
If a bad design means 25x it's original lifespan in a hostile environment then I hope my next cell phone is just as badly designed.
A really bad design (mechanically). They made those little wheels like its mission was to run on the lab's floor! And the whole thing looks (on the outside) like a college project! But they had a ton of luck with them...