Wrecked, stranded Mars rover called upon for one more mission

After six years, two crippling wheel breakages and months of forced sleep, NASA's feistiest rover still isn't ready to give up.
Written by John Herrman, Contributor

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

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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