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Spirit Rover

Map of trapped rover

Hung up on Mars

Tracks on Mars

Trapped on Mars

Attempting to free the rover

Rub al Khali

Drilling into rock

Stalled wheel

Since landing on Mars to begin its planned 90-day mission on January 3, 2004, the Spirit rover has provided NASA with unprecedented information on the geology and atmosphere of the Red Planet. But scientists say its days may be numbered.

Caption by / Photo by NASA
Although it's still operational, Spirit has become stuck in deep sand, rendering it immobile. Spirit has been trapped at this location on the west side of a crater known as "home plate" for the past nine months. On Wednesday, NASA scientists said they're running out of maneuvers for getting Spirit's wheel unstuck.
Caption by / Photo by NASA

In this image taken June 2, 2009, we can see how Spirit has become immobile, with its wheel stuck in a fine soil. Using the microscopic camera mounted on the soil sampler arm, Spirit took this panoramic image of the situation currently challenging its operators back on Earth.

"The highest priority for this mission right now is to stay mobile, if that's possible," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University and principal investigator for the rover project.

Caption by / Photo by NASA/JPL/USGS

If scientists cannot free Spirit soon, they will give up and instead try to improve its tilt. Collecting more sunlight would give the solar-powered rover more time and energy with which to attempt to escape the sand trap. And, NASA says, it would at least keep the onboard instruments powered so it can collect data from its current location.

But time is not on Spirit's side. It's trapped in the southern hemisphere of Mars, where it is currently autumn and the amount of sunshine reaching it is steadily declining. Unless the tilt can be improved or winds clear off some of the dust that has collected on the solar panels, Spirit could run out of the power it needs to make more escape attempts, or "extraction activities," as early as January. By May, Spirit might not have enough power to remain in operation.

Here, Spirit turns its camera backward to view its own tracks.

Caption by / Photo by NASA/JPL
The view from the Spirit rover looking north, back along its path, from the point where it got trapped last April. The rover is believed to be straddling the rim of a hidden crater. Note the front-left wheel, nearly buried in powdery soil.
Caption by / Photo by NASA
In an attempt to understand the conditions under which Spirit has become stuck, NASA team members have created a test setup that simulates the situation the rover faces in a soil patch on Mars called Troy.
Caption by / Photo by NASA
This area was named "Rub al Khali" after a similarly desolate area in Saudi Arabia.
Caption by / Photo by NASA/JPL/Cornell
The 0.35-inch hole drilled into this rock, called Clovis, is the deepest one driven into a Martian rock.
Caption by / Photo by NASA/JPL/Cornell
Since losing the use of its right-front wheel in 2006, Spirit has been forced to move backward. Looking back after moving 22.7 meters on the 1,861st Martian day (on March 28, 2009), we can see the bright soil churned up by dragging the immobile wheel.
Caption by / Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech
Updated:
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