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The prospect of ever hearing from the stuck Mars rover Spirit is fading after it failed to respond to repeated calls from Earth.
Despite the dismal outlook, NASA will make a last-ditch effort to communicate with Spirit, which fell silent a little over a year ago. If there’s still no contact in the next month or so, the space agency will scale back its listening campaign for Spirit and focus on its healthy twin, Opportunity.
That Spirit has not called home suggests that something is more seriously wrong than just a power issue, said program manager John Callas at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The solar-powered rover became bogged in a sand trap in 2009 during a routine drive. Despite efforts to wiggle free, it remained stuck and could not tilt itself toward the sun as the Martian winter approached.
Without an adequate amount of energy reaching its solar panels, it went into hibernation.
Engineers had expected Spirit to wake up once there was maximum sunlight where it’s trapped. But that point came and went earlier this month with no response.
Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, had put the odds of hearing a signal by now at less than 50-50. Still, he stands behind attempts to call it.
“I would be surprised if we re-establish communication — happy but surprised,” said Arvidson, a mission deputy principal investigator. “It’s been so long.”
Ground controllers are paging Spirit over a range of frequencies and at various times during the day in case its internal clock stopped working and it lost track of time. They also are commanding the rover to turn on its backup radio transmitter in case the main one died.
At some point, NASA will have to declare Spirit lost if there’s no word. When that happens, efforts will be reduced to sporadic listening for it through the end of the year, Callas said.
Spirit and Opportunity parachuted to opposite sides of Mars in 2004. Both have worked beyond their original, three-month mission during which they discovered geologic evidence of water on the red planet.
While Spirit’s odometer remains stuck at 4.8 miles, Opportunity finished exploring the rim of Santa Maria crater on Mars and is rolling toward another crater. It has racked up 16.6 miles so far.
Spirit and Opportunity are scheduled to get some company next year.
In late 2011, NASA will launch the unmanned Curiosity rover from Cape Canaveral in Florida and the other parts of the flight system, delivering the rover to the surface of Mars in August 2012. The rover team was hoping for a launch in 2009, but a number of parts of Curiosity were not ready yet.
“It was pretty clear we were not going to make it then,” said LANL Roger Wiens, who has developed ChemCam, one of the many parts to the Rover that will be launched. “The biggest problem was the motors that drive the six wheels, steer the rover, and move the antenna, arm, and gimbals.”
Wiens said, as of now, everything is on schedule for a late November launch. It will take eight months to get to Mars and at that particular point, the planets will be about 35 million miles apart. So where is the Rover going to land when it gets to Mars? That is up for discussion, but there are four options that are being considered.
The sites are:
• Eberswalde Crater, which contains a clay-bearing delta formed when an ancient river deposited sediment, possibly into a lake.
• Gale Crater, which contains a 5-kilometer sequence of layers that vary from clay-rich materials near the bottom to sulfates at higher elevation.
• Holden Crater, which has alluvial fans, flood deposits, possible lake beds and clay-rich sediments.
• Mawrth Vallis, which exposes layers within Mars’ surface with differing mineralogy, including at least two kinds of clays.