Technology & Science

Mars rover likely parked for good: NASA

The Mars rover Spirit is likely stuck permanently, NASA says, and the space agency will prepare it to hibernate over the Martian winter.

The Mars rover Spirit is likely stuck permanently, NASA says, and the space agency will prepare it to hibernate over the Martian winter.

The left-front wheel of the Spirit rover, seen here on the left, is stuck in a Martian sand trap. ((NASA/Associated Press))

NASA said Tuesday that its engineers have given up trying to free the Spirit from the loose sand where it has been trapped since April.

"[Spirit's] driving days are likely over," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars exploration program, but "science will continue."

Rover driver Ashley Stroupe said they will attempt to jostle the rover in place and angle its solar panels to increase its chance of surviving the Martian winter.

In its current position, tilted slightly toward the south, Spirit's solar panels will not be able to maintain power through the winter and keep communication going with Earth.

The hope is that the rover will wake up in the spring and continue its mission, albeit as a stationary Mars lander.

"Spirit is not dead," said Doug McCuistion, NASA's Mars Exploration Program director. "It has just entered another phase of its long life." 

NASA said the rest of Spirit's mission could last anywhere from several months to years.

John Callas, the project manager for the Mars exploration rovers program, said Spirit can hibernate for up to six months and still reactivate.

"The bottom line is we're not giving up on Spirit," said astronomer Steve Squyres of Cornell University. "Once springtime comes … we have exciting science planned.

"There's a class of science we can do only with a stationary vehicle that we had put off during the years of driving."

Squyres said one such experiment would measure wobbles in the rotation of Mars, which would give clues to the composition of the planet's core.

"If the final scientific feather in Spirit's cap is determining whether the core of Mars is liquid or solid, that would be wonderful," he said.

As well, the lander's robotic arm can continue to examine the soil around it, which is rich in sulphur compounds, making it difficult to drive through, but interesting scientifically.

Calls said Spirit will send its last picture and data of the season in March or April before shutting down for the winter.

Winter in the southern hemisphere on Mars, where Spirit landed, will begin May 13. Spring will come again Nov. 13.

Spirit landed on Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, while a companion rover, Opportunity, landed 21 days later. The rovers were to explore the Red Planet on a mission that was only to last 90 days. In 2005, Spirit scaled a hill on Mars as tall as the Statue of Liberty. In 2006, one of its wheels stopped working, limiting its mobility. After it got stuck in its sand trap, a second wheel stopped working.

Opportunity continues to explore the surface of the planet, driving toward a large crater called Endeavor. It has driven more than 19 kilometres on the surface of Mars and has transmitted more than 133,000 pictures back to Earth.