WASHINGTON After months of trying to free the Mars Rover "Spirit" from Martian quicksand, NASA engineers have given up the attempt and designated the spunky Rover a "stationary science platform."
"Spirit is not dead; it has just entered another phase of its long life," Doug McCuistion, NASA's director of the Mars Exploration Program, said in a statement released by the space agency on Tuesday (Jan. 26). "We told the world last year that attempts to set the beloved robot free may not be successful. It looks like Spirit's current location on Mars will be its final resting place."
If Spirit and its solar panels manage to survive the Martian winter, NASA said, it will continue unlocking the Red Planet's secrets.
But NASA scientists warned that, at its current angle, Spirit may not have enough power to continue communicating with Earth during the Martian winter. Engineers will attempt to rotate Spirit's stuck wheels to change its tilt to produce power and continue communicating.
"Getting through the winter will all come down to temperature and how cold the rover electronics will get," said John Callas, project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for Spirit and its twin rover, "Opportunity." "Every bit of energy produced by Spirit's solar arrays will go into keeping the rover's critical electronics warm, either by having the electronics on or by turning on essential heaters."
Spirit became stuck in soft sand ten months ago after its wheels broke through a crusty surface while driving south along the western edge of a low plateau called Home Plate. Rover operators at JPL have tried unsuccessfully to free to stuck Rover, even soliciting suggestions from outside engineers.
One suggestion was to use Spirit's robotic arm to lift its wheels out of the soft sand. but NASA engineers dismissed the idea, saying the robot arm could not provide the force necessary to raise the robot off the surface.
Despite the setback, the two Mars Rovers have far exceeded their expected operational lifetimes of about three months on the Martain surface. For example, Opportunity spent several weeks beginning last November examining a rock called "Marquette Island" that scientists said originated deep inside the Martian crust.