Saturday, January 02, 2010

Free Spirit. The rover, not the immortal soul. Though free that too.

Today (January 3rd), Nasa's Mars rover, Spirit, will mark its six year, unfathomable stay on the surface of the red planet. Intended to only be operational for three months, Spirit, and its twin, Opportunity (who will celebrate its six year mark on the 24th), have gone well beyond their limits bringing back contrary views of Mars. While Opportunity has documented a wet and acidic Mars, Spirit, halfway around the world has had a completely different experience encountering a steamy and violent environment.

But all does not bode well for the little rover that "does, kinda". Nine months ago, Spirit's wheel broke through a crusty patch of surface and found itself stuck in some very loose sand. In 2006, Spirit's right wheel stopped working, which has met the rover, trying to get out of its sandtrap, with a mid-nities colloquialism, "Psych!" With four or possibly five wheels working (the sixth comes in at random), it has only made the poor little rover sink deeper into the sand.

If the little guy can't come out of the trap soon, NASA's focus is going to switch from mobility to preservation. Autumn is coming in the southern hemisphere, and with it brings less daylight. Spirit is tilted five degrees south where it sits. The winter sun at this time is coming up low in the northern sky. As we have all learned from watching Wall-E, this is unfavorable conditions for its solar panels, which might not collect enough solar energy, and could force Spirit to power down completely.

But why bother, you may ask, since the rover is stuck, its pretty much useless, no?

No! You ignorant, pea-brained, yet handsome readers of my blog who I will hope continue to do-so even after I brought into question the scale of your cerebrum.

In fact, Spirit can still perform its duties and more in its stuck position. It can study the deposit that its spinning wheel can kick up, it can study the interior of Mars by using radio transmissions to measure the wobble of the planet's axis of rotation, something it couldn't do while mobile (Take that! Opportunity and your functioning six wheels).

For now, we sit and wait. And applaud the valiant spirit of the rover with the same monicker. Six years of passing along to us new-found knowledge of another world along with the cool shots of a Martian landscape, and with the potential of giving us new material in its immobile state. You've gone far and beyond, little guy. Literally.

Happy six years on Mars!

1 comment:

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