Hobbled Spirit Heading for Sun

This is the Opportunity rover’s panorama of "Erebus Rim," acquired as the rover was exploring sand dunes and outcrop rocks in Meridiani Planum.
Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s long-lived Mars rovers demand lots of care, as they age and the Martian winter approaches.

"It continues to be an exciting adventure with each day like a whole new mission," said John Callas, the new project manager for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover missions. "Even though the rovers are well past their original design life, they still have plenty of capability to conduct outstanding science on Mars. The JPL operations team and the remote science team working on the project are the best in the solar system at what they do. It is a pleasure and a privilege to lead such an outstanding team and great mission."

One of Spirit’s six wheels has stopped working. Dragging that wheel, the solar-powered rover must reach a slope where it can catch enough sunshine to continue operating during the Martian winter. The period of minimum sunshine is more than 100 days away, but Spirit gets only enough power for about one hour per day of driving on flat ground. And the supply is dropping fast.

Spirit’s right-front wheel became a concern when it began drawing unusually high current five months after the January 2004 landing on Mars. Driving Spirit backwards redistributed lubricant and returned the wheel to normal operation. This week, during the 779th Martian day of what was originally planned as a 90-Martian-day mission, the motor that rotates that wheel stopped working.

"It is not drawing any current at all," said JPL’s Jacob Matijevic, rover engineering team chief. One possibility engineers are considering is the motor’s brushes, contacts that deliver power to the rotating part of the motor, have lost contact. The motors that rotate Spirit’s wheels have revolved more than 13 million times, far more than called for in its design.

Shadow cast by Spirit over Gusev tire tracks. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Spirit’s solar panels have been generating about 350 watt-hours of electricity daily for the past week. That is down about 15 percent since February and less than one-half of their output during the Martian summer.

The best spot for Spirit is the north-facing side of McCool Hill, where it could spend the southern-hemisphere winter tilted toward the sun. Spirit finished studying a bright feature called "Home Plate" last week and is driving toward the hill. It has approximately 120 meters (about 390 feet) to go. Expected progress is approximately 12 meters (40 feet) per day.

Opportunity is closer to the equator, so does not need to winter on a slope like Spirit. Opportunity spent most of the past four months at Erebus Crater. It examined layered outcrops, while the rover team determined and tested a strategy for dealing with degraded performance by a motor in the shoulder of its robotic arm. Opportunity left Erebus this week and is on a 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) journey to a giant crater called Victoria.

Related Web Pages

Mars Rovers/JPL
Giving Mars Back its Heartbeat
Looking for Martian Life
Spirit’s Trail
Walking Naked on the Red Planet
Roving the Red Planet
Living on Mars
Opportunity’s Anniversary