In a press conference yesterday, NASA and JPL scientists announced that the Mars rover Spirit is stuck. The little-spaceprobe-that-could has been trapped in the sand near a crater called Troy for almost a year now, and for that time has been doing little or no science; instead, engineers have been trying to figure out how to get the rover unstuck. After all that time, NASA has decided to throw in the towel. Martian winter is coming for Spirit, and they are now focusing on getting it positioned so that it can survive the coming drop in temperature.
1) This doesn’t mean Spirit is dead! If they are able to get it set up to survive the winter (mainly by tilting it toward the Sun so the solar panels can collect energy) then once it’s revived it will still be able to do plenty of science from where it is. After all, it’s a laboratory sitting on another world. I imagine there’s lots of stuff the scientists can do with it.
2) Emily Lakdawalla, as usual, has the details of all this on The Planetary Society blog, including some evidence-based speculation that it’s NASA calling the shots here and not JPL, which controls the rover.
3) We have to remember something rather important: when the two rovers (Opportunity is the other, which is still running fine on the other side of the planet) landed on Mars, they had a planned operational lifetime of 90 days.
That was in January 2004.
In other words, Spirit has been on Mars for over 2200 days, and even counting when it first got stuck, it still ran well for more than 20 times its nominal lifespan. Cars these days have a standard warranty for 7 years; how’d you like yours to run for 140 years?
So for me, while this news is not great, it has to be put in context: Spirit is one of the most successful NASA missions of all time. And its sister, Opportunity, is still running like a champ. I hope I’ll be doing as well when I’m 1400 years old.