Stuck Mars Rover About to Die?

Built to rove for 90 days, Spirit has lasted six years on Mars. But now it's stuck and may lose power by May. Even standing still, though, Spirit can do a surprising amount of science, NASA says. Video.

Built to rove for 90 days, Spirit has lasted six years on Mars. But now it's stuck and may lose power by May. Even standing still, though, Spirit can do a surprising amount of science, NASA says.

© 2010 National Geographic; Video courtesy NASA

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Unedited Transcript:

NASA’s Mars rover Spirit passed its six-year anniversary January 3rd, but the upcoming Mars winter may spell the end for the ‘all-terrain’ vehicle.

Last year, Spirit’s wheels broke through a crusty Mars surface layer and became trapped in the loose sand hidden underneath. Here, a NASA scale model mockup is seen trying to maneuver out of the predicament.

Latest attempts to recover the real rover have resulted in it sinking deeper in the Martian soil.

Spirit’s twin rover, Opportunity, landed on the opposite side of Mars 3 weeks after Spirit, and is still able to rove across the planet’s surface. The two rovers combined have traveled more than 16 miles, sending back photos and lots of data about the planet.

As daily sunshine on the Red Planet’s southern hemisphere declines with the approaching winter, NASA ground operators are trying to adjust the tilt of Spirit’s solar panels to compensate for the decrease in solar energy.

SOUNDBITE: Michael Meyer, Lead Scientist, NASA Mars Exploration Program

“Right now the solar panels are pointed slightly south; it’s in its approaching winter; and for the best sunlight, it should be pointed in the other direction toward the north where the sun will be above the horizon.”

Unless the tilt is improved, and an unexpected gust of Martian wind can clean off dust accumulation on its solar panels, Spirit’s power will continually decline until May, and the rover could be become totally inoperable.

But NASA scientists say the rovers far outlasted their expected life of just 90 days.

SOUNDBITE: Michael Meyer, Lead Scientist, NASA Mars Exploration Program

“Something that lasts six years when it was only supposed to last 90 days, you gotta be joyful that that thing has been so tremendously successful.”

“In some ways, the idea that it may be stuck in one place, is sad, in that it can’t rove anymore. But on the other hand, it’s still alive. There is some science it can do that it couldn’t do as a rover. So, that’s in fact, something to look forward to and is exciting.”

Meyer says by being stationary, Spirit can make extremely fine measurements using its radio, and it can monitor minor variations in the spin of Mars. He says by doing that for an extended time, scientists will be able to tell if Mars has a liquid center or a solid center.

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