Free Spirit

The picture you are looking at here is not Death Valley, nor is it a spy shot showing portions of a new vehicle (lower left). Rather, it is a panoramic view of Troy.

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The picture you are looking at here is not Death Valley, nor is it a spy shot showing portions of a new vehicle (lower left).

Rather, it is a panoramic view of Troy. No, not the Troy of “Helen of.” It is Troy as in a portion of the Martian surface, where the photographer, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is stuck. North is at the center and south is at both ends of the photo.

Spirit has been stuck at Troy since April 23, 2009. What’s all the more remarkable is the fact that that is about 5.5 months ago and the little six-wheeled vehicle is still working. Spirit (and its twin rover, Opportunity) landed on Mars in January 2004 and it had been figured to be good for about 90 days. So far, according to Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, it has operated ”22 times longer than its designed life.”

Of the six wheels of the vehicle, five continue to work. The right front wheel gave out in 2006. It got stuck when it was driving backward this past spring (thereby putting the inoperative wheel in the back); it broke through the surface of the sand. Initial efforts to get the vehicle out managed to get it stuck even deeper—who among us hasn’t found ourselves in that predicament at one time or another?

So NASA decided to do some testing before continuing sending command. On November 16 it will begin to send commands to Spirit in order to begin the hoped-for extraction. “This is going to be a lengthy process, and there’s a high probability attempts to free Spirit will not be successful,” McCuistion admits. They send a command one day and figure out whether it worked the next—somewhat more difficult than shouting to the driver “Give it some gas! Stop! Again! Stop!” etc.

“We’ll start by steering the wheels straight and driving, though we may have to steer the wheels to the right to counter any downhill slip to the left,” said Ashley Stroupe, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory rover driver and Spirit extraction testing coordinator. “Straight-ahead driving is intended to get the rover’s center of gravity past a rock that lies underneath Spirit. Gaining horizontal distance without losing too much vertical clearance will be a key to success. The right front’ wheel’s inability to rotate greatly increases the challenge.”

What’s more, apparently the vehicle is suffering from amnesia, as well.

And people thought Paris-Dakar (now moved to South America) was tough.