Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Spirit: End of the Road

Spirit Rover on Mars
It has been just over six (Earth) years since the Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars. Both have far, far outlasted their warranty, helped in part by dust devils that handily blew dust off their solar panels.

Now, via Sky and Telescope, comes word that Spirit has reached highway's end, not quite seven kilometers from its landing place. Like many a pioneering terrestrial motorist, its joyriding days ended in a sand drift.

But if Spirit's motoring days are over, its exploring days happily are not. It will continue operating as a fixed radio beacon on the Martian surface, permitting precision measurements of Mars' rotation that can help to determine whether it retains a liquid core.

And so the adventure continues ...


Related posts: Weather and landslides on Mars.

17 comments:

Anita said...

Hand salute, Spirit. Well done.

Native Jovian said...

My reading of the story was that they were halting attempts to escape the sand for the winter, as a method of conserving power (which, obviously, is in shorter supply during winter when you rely on solar panels for power), rather than giving up on it entirely. That said, even if Spirit remains stationary for the rest of its operational life, there's still plenty of cool stuff it can do right where it is. It might not be going anywhere for a while, but its far from the end of its mission!

Anita said...

It has plenty left to do. Instead of an explorer, it's a colonist now.

Anonymous said...

We all need a beacon to guide us when looking toward a new place...

Ferrell

Rick said...

'A wagon wheel broke, and Pa said to Ma, Reckon that means the good lord wants us to settle down right here.'

Citizen Joe said...

I'm not sure if this is a cautionary tale or if it is bad precedent. When we talk about space travel it is usually in terms of months to years. In interstellar time frames it is usually in centuries. Just how long do we really expect our ships to last? We lucked out with Spirit, I think it was only intended to function for three months but we got twenty times that. So are we underestimating how long our ships can last or are we looking at a fluke?

Ferrard Carson said...

Huzzah for the brave Spirit, still persevering against all odds.

And Citizen Joe, I haven't a clue why NASA so underestimated the life of its rovers - perhaps they anticipated Mars to be a much more vicious environment than it is, perhaps they were anticipating an "Act of God" that was the opposite of blessing the two intrepid little guys for years.

Or maybe they thought a Decepticon would crush it in a week. Who knows?

More seriously, it might just have been the ol' Montgomery Scott trick of low-balling the estimate to look awesome.

~ Ferrard

Native Jovian said...

To my knowledge, the main reason that the rovers have lasted so much longer than was originally thought possible was because the Martian dust storms turned out to actually clear dust off their solar panels rather than bury them underneath a new layer of dust. It's the sort of lucky break that can't be anticipated, but can at least be capitalized on, which NASA certainly has!

Anita said...

The solar panels were the X factor.

In gov't service the default is low balling -- if you're right, you're potential middle management material. If you're wrong, you could play the Palace.

My hubster, retired ammo man, calls it the Ground Crew Law: When asked how long a job will take, pick a number, multiply by two and add 10%. It's usually pretty accurate.

Rick said...

I had pretty much the same thought. NASA deep space probes have a history of exceeding warranty lifetime.

Think about the Voyagers, still in service and expected to operate for another decade. I only just found out that NASA reclassified them years ago as an interstellar mission.

Thucydides said...

NASA and American space hardware has had a history of massively outperforming expectations and being used in ways the builders never intended.

Apollo 13 is probably the best known example, but a lunar rover was fixed with duct tape and a map, and deep space probes have been taking excellent pictures in the region of Uranus and Neptune with about a quarter of the light available in the regions of Jupiter and Saturn.

The combination of flexible platforms and programs, good old "American know how" and engineering "gold plating" all have a lot to do with this. The "Faster better cheaper" paradigm of the 1990's resulted in a lot of failures as the redundancy and flexibility was costed out of that generation of spacecraft, but I think we have moved up the learning curve and future space missions *should* be able to rack up the string of success we have seen to date.

Jim Baerg said...

http://xkcd.com/695/

Jean Remy said...

Gold plating does have a good side.

It seems that deep space missions go one of two ways. Either it vastly overperforms, or a math error causes a partial or total failure. Hubble was close to a total failure, but it was in orbit so we could fix that. Galileo's antenna didn't deploy, but they found ways around it. Of course Mars Observer... *sigh*. On the other hand the Voyager probes and Spirit endure far beyond estimates. The estimates are probably low to soften the blow in case the mission is lost, but they are overengineered so if everything goes *right* they will keep on trucking.

Law of averages at work.

Rick said...

That nicely sums it up. In the case of the Mars rovers, I think the 'expected' lifetime was based on wintering over on Mars being so rugged that no one was sure that the rovers would still function come spring. It turned out they did, and getting their solar wings dusted off gave them a further lease on life.

Krikor Krikor Krikorian said...

Let us convince President Obama to fully fund project Orion, get a gig on the lunar surface at the Mars station, cruise out to the three lunar rovers left on the surface in 1971-1972, brush the lunar dust off their solar panels, and proceed to conduct a lunar demolition derby in 1/6 gravity.

Rick said...

Someone sounds 'off boat' in this thread. (To puzzled innocent bystanders, my wife's a Krikorian on her mother's side.)

Jean Remy said...

*innocent bystander*