Mars rover no more, but Spirit lives on

The Mars rover Spirit is still operational, but NASA scientists will stop trying to free it from a sandtrap and focus on the rover's survival and ability to conduct experiments where it's stuck.

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Jennifer Guevin
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Spirit rover wheels
This photo, taken with one of Spirit's onboard cameras, shows the position of Spirit's front wheels following a backward drive on January 23. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Mars rover Spirit isn't dead yet, but it has reached its final resting place.

After months of unsuccessful attempts at freeing the rover from a sandtrap, NASA on Tuesday said it has decided to make the best of the situation and instruct it to conduct scientific experiments from its current location.

The rover became trapped last April when one of its wheels broke through a crusty Martian surface and dug into the fine, powdery soil beneath it. After many so-called extraction activities, including wiggling the wheels and rotating them very slowly, NASA scientists have decided to stop trying to extract the rover and refocus their efforts.

Artist's concept of Spirit on Mars. NASA

"Spirit is not dead; it has just entered another phase of its long life," Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "We told the world last year that attempts to set the beloved robot free may not be successful. It looks like Spirit's current location on Mars will be its final resting place."

Now, scientists will focus on getting Spirit through the upcoming Martian winter. The main concern is getting the solar-powered rover to store up enough energy that it can keep its onboard electronics sufficiently warm during the cold winter months.

It is now autumn on Mars, and the days are getting shorter, which means opportunities for Spirit to collect sunlight are dwindling. Now, scientists will use what power it has left to try to reposition the vehicle--and its solar panels--to maximize the amount of sunlight it can collect. It is currently tilting toward the south, but the sun is in the north. NASA said Tuesday that, at its current angle, the rover is not likely to be able to communicate with Earth through winter. If Spirit survives, it will continue its scientific research.

"There's a class of science we can do only with a stationary vehicle that we had put off during the years of driving," Steve Squyres, a researcher at Cornell University and principal investigator for the Mars rovers, said in a statement. "Degraded mobility does not mean the mission ends abruptly. Instead, it lets us transition to stationary science."

That work could include studying variations in the planet's rotation over the course of several months, with the hope of gaining insights about the planet's core.

Meanwhile, Spirit's sister rover, Opportunity, is still healthy and is heading south toward a crater called Concepcion, which is estimated to be about 1,000 years old and one of the youngest craters explored by NASA on the Red Planet.

Spirit travel map
This map shows Spirit's travels over the last several years, circumnavigating an area called Home Plate. (Click for larger version) NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory