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Mars NASA Science

NASA To Try Powering Mars Rover "Spirit" Out of Sand Trap 118

Posted by Soulskill
from the calls-to-onstar-have-gone-unanswered dept.
coondoggie writes "NASA's long-running Mars rover Spirit is stuck in a sand trap — a situation the space agency would like to fix. Yesterday NASA said it will begin what it called the long process of extricating Spirit by sending commands that could free the rover. Spirit has been stuck in a place NASA calls 'Troy' since April 23, when the rover's wheels broke through a crust on the surface that was covering bright-toned, slippery sand underneath. After a few drive attempts to get Spirit out in the subsequent days, it began sinking deeper in the sand trap. Driving was suspended to allow time for tests and reviews of possible escape strategies, NASA stated."
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NASA To Try Powering Mars Rover "Spirit" Out of Sand Trap

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  • Oh no (Score:5, Funny)

    by MichaelSmith (789609) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @06:12AM (#30096160) Homepage Journal

    Methinks it is time for somebody to get out and push.

  • by lordmatrix (1439871) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @06:32AM (#30096220)
    Since the Mars rover is not really on Mars, but on a secret location on Earth, perhaps they could just use the "hand of god" to give it a little help :)
    • So is NASA, their buildings on earth are just a movie prop to fool the gullible, like you.

      • by lxs (131946)

        No they're a soundstage. Those moon landings had to be filmed somewhere silly.

        The Shuttles are simply large fireworks packed into a paper mache hull. If you look closely you can see the "made in China" stickers on the "engines".

    • on a secret location on Earth, perhaps they could just use the "hand of god" to give it a little help :)

      I think you're confusing earth with an overdramatic novel ;)

    • by hazee (728152) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @09:31AM (#30096890)
      I fail to see why it takes Diego Maradona to free the rover, wherever it is.
      • If they had really been thinking, they would have made it like The Animal [retrojunk.com] with retractable claws in the wheels. If only NASA engineers had watched Monster Trucks they would have known how to prepare for this eventuality.

        Actually the retractable claws didn't work very well, but they looked awesome on the commercials. Sigh.
  • by Dayofswords (1548243) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @06:43AM (#30096250)
    Mars is the new frontier for the AAA people to explore.

    Up next:OnStar

    • Who modded this as flamebait?? This is a reasonably funny joke. I suspect someone was a tad too quick on the trigger with the moderation and mistook AAA (automotive association of America) for whatever spam post above is spamming "GNAA".
    • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

      by TheGreenNuke (1612943)

      Must have been hard to come up with that one.

      Posted by Soulskill on Saturday November 14, @05:08AM from the calls-to-onstar-have-gone-unanswered dept.

    • by starblazer (49187)

      There are multiple problems to this:

      Good luck finding someone to run the call for 19 dollars + enroute mileage.
      There would not be a valid plate, registration, and AAA member with the vehicle.

      Cross Country Automotive Services (aka Onstar) would be even worse.... they would ask if that 308160 minute ETA was due to weather or if you were just busy.

  • by slifox (605302) * on Saturday November 14, 2009 @07:03AM (#30096318)
    It seems like future rovers should have instrumentation to sense the composition of the ground they are about to tread over, as well as extra limbs that can be used to repair the rover (even just a brush to clean the solar panels) or assist its movement (grappling hook?)

    Say what you will about NASA's large budgets or sometimes questionable research efforts... when put to the task, they can produce some remarkable feats of engineering

    The longevity of the Mars rovers never ceases to amaze me. Just the fact that we are controlling robots we landed on Mars is cool enough, but that they lasted 22 times longer than their intended 90-day lifetime in the harsh Mars environment, is truly an example of quality engineering.

    Of course, their over-engineering of human risk-related matters leaves something to be desired. Anyone exploring uncharted territories has to accept the risks involved, including the possibility of a one way trip. Is that really such a bad thing though? There are plenty of risk-takers who thrive on this, and plenty of them would love to make history as part of the first colonization team on the moon (for example).

    Instead of focusing resources on ensuring safe return, we should spend those resources on setting up permanent, sustainable facilities on the moon, so that we can slowly reduce our need to continually send materials. Is shipping miniature mining and production robot/facility to the moon that unimaginable? Once you can harvest and produce key materials on the moon, the task of setting up long-term human habitats becomes at least slightly easier.

    I really hope the commercialization of space travel is the catalyst needed to accelerate the development of space colonization, and I hope that the excessive human-risk aversion policies that arguably held NASA back are not forced upon the participating private companies of the new space era.

    On yet another mildly-unrelated note:
    I'd love to see more development on the Launch Loop concept, which seems WAY more feasible than the space elevators... no science/technology breakthroughs are required, just a lot of energy and money ;)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Launch_loop [wikipedia.org]
    • by barzok (26681) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @08:16AM (#30096588)

      The panel-clearing brush was considered. Then discarded. They didn't intend for the rovers to last more than 90 days, and determined there wouldn't be a significant dust build-up in that time, so they used the weight & space for items more valuable to the mission.

    • by jdigriz (676802) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @08:46AM (#30096694)
      Guys, the 90-day planned lifespan of the rovers was pure politics. Congress wouldn't have gone for, "Yeah, we're gonna need funding for the next 5 years." if told so up-front. At the same time, it wouldn't have made sense to allocate that money from the beginning since there was a non-zero chance that the rovers might auger in, like the Mars Polar Lander did, and that none of that funding for surface ops would be needed after all. So they built the rovers, said "Well, if we get 90 days out of them, we can declare Mission Accomplished." and went with it. Since they were solar-powered there's no particular reason that they would last only that long. 90 days was a classic case of "underpromise and overdeliver." If there had been some sort of catastrophic design flaw and they failed after only 30 days they could have claimed to have succeeded with 1/3 of the mission objectives, etc.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 14, 2009 @09:26AM (#30096858)
        While that may be true, nonetheless 5 years of operation on Mars is damn impressive.
        "Underpromise" or not, they certainly overdelivered
      • by AikonMGB (1013995) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @10:50AM (#30097466) Homepage

        The problem isn't politics, it's requirements. In order meet a requirement like mission length, you have to show that the system will be X% capable of operating for the desired life span (where X is defined by your customer). To show that a system is capable of surviving 90 days on Mars is likely multiple orders of magnitude cheaper than to show that a system is capable of surviving 5 years. Right off the bat, you would need

        • increased solar panel area to deal with end-of-life conditions, both cell degradation and environmental effects;
        • more, bigger batteries to ensure that they can maintain sufficient charge after 5 years;
        • more expensive electronic components that can handle higher radiation doses, and more electronic redundancy to protect against single-event faults;
        • redundancy of moving parts critical to the mission (e.g. wheel motors); and,
        • as you mentioned, ground operations, both personnel, equipment, and antenna time.

        This is just what I thought of in the 60 s it took me to write this post -- I'm sure there are many more factors anyone could dig up. The point is that aiming for 5 years, even with intent of only operating it for 90 days, would drive the cost up prohibitively.

        Aikon-

        • by zogger (617870)

          I'll add his to your list as well, because I have to do a variety of off road travel all the time for work. Tracks would have been better option. When wheeled stuff gets stuck around here (and it happens a few times a year), it's the tracked vehicles that get them out. The rovers are designed for real slow, careful and deliberate progress, so I wouldn't worry about them throwing a track either.

          Ya, I know, tracks are heavier and so on. Doesn't matter, the whole point of these Martian buggies, hence their nam

      • by Tablizer (95088)

        Guys, the 90-day planned lifespan of the rovers was pure politics.

        Sorry, but that's a baseless accusation. There's no evidence for it. I would also point out that the rovers have suffered multiple malfunctions already including broken joint motors and stuck wheels. They were simply not designed for long-term use. The fact that the rovers are still operating is part luck and part clever work-arounds.

        And dust-storms nearly froze the rovers to death (cracked electronics) by blocking sun. If these storms were a

        • by jdigriz (676802)
          The Sojourner rover was a completely different design. The evidence is in the factor of 22 that the planned design lifetime was wrong, and the six funding extension requests. The fact that luck and clever workarounds were needed is what makes it exploration. Not being able to completely predict the environment being explored is not a design limitation. A design limitation is, e.g. "The Plutonium in the Radioisotope Thermal Generators of Pioneer 10 will decay to the point that there is insufficient power
          • by Tablizer (95088)

            The evidence is in the factor of 22 that the planned design lifetime was wrong, and the six funding extension requests

            You mean living 22 times longer than planned (which requires new funds)? You offered no specific evidence about the design process itself to back your conspiracy.

            The fact that luck and clever workarounds were needed is what makes it exploration.

            You don't design with the intent of relying on clever work-arounds to reach a goal. That's too risky. It's not even quantifiable.

            A more plausible ex

      • by barath_s (609997)

        Since they were solar-powered there's no particular reason that they would last only that long. 90 days was a classic case of "underpromise and overdeliver." If there had been some sort of catastrophic design flaw

        Except that Martian dust was expected to cover the solar panels. No one predicted the existence of Martian winds and dust devils that would lift the dust off. Not to mention the dice game with surviving the Martian winter, and any number of associated design (wheels, motors etc) targeted at 90 day plus

    • by AikonMGB (1013995)

      Instead of focusing resources on ensuring safe return, we should spend those resources on setting up permanent, sustainable facilities on the moon, so that we can slowly reduce our need to continually send materials. Is shipping miniature mining and production robot/facility to the moon that unimaginable? Once you can harvest and produce key materials on the moon, the task of setting up long-term human habitats becomes at least slightly easier.

      I think I saw a documentary [wikipedia.org] about this.

      Aikon-

    • Overly ambitious (Score:4, Interesting)

      by SEWilco (27983) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @11:16AM (#30097650) Journal
      That's how a rover which was designed to be cheap and lightweight would have become a multiton semi-mobile laboratory. Adding on accessories and desirable features, then stronger equipment to carry it all, is how much larger and more expensive space probes are created. Problems with such designs caused smaller and simpler designs to be favored. But... why aren't there six more of these things wandering around by now?
      • But... why aren't there six more of these things wandering around by now?

        Now that is an excellent question. Obviously it's a robust, proven design. Producing a number of rovers will drive the cost down. They should have fired off a few after Spirit and Opportunity hit two years (although it would have been embarrassing at that point if the new rovers died at 90 days).
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by DerekLyons (302214)

        But... why aren't there six more of these things wandering around by now?

        Why should there be six more wandering around? Their landing systems only allow them to reach a very small proportion of the Martian surface and they are only designed to answer a limited series of scientific questions during their very brief lifespan. Also, odds are that of those six, two would have died shortly after landing, three would have died on or about the ninety day limit, and the remaining one would have died during the fi

        • by SEWilco (27983)
          Yes, we should have already seen six more rovers die. Why hasn't it happened?
          • Because, as I very carefully spelled out in the first part of the message - there isn't any point. These rovers can't reach but a very small portion of Mars and can only answer a limited set of scientific questions.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ScottMaxwell (108831)

        why aren't there six more of these things wandering around by now?

        Because I can drive only two at a time. When these two are done (gods forbid), then it's time to send two more. :-)

      • When the Mars rovers were sent out, Mars was unusually close to Earth. Sending out similar vehicles now would be much tougher, take much longer, require much bigger fuel loads, cost much more money, and give many more opportunities for errors.

        At some point the US may want to ask whether it desperately wants a functional healthcare system, or six more Mars rovers. I mean, the rovers did a great job at first, but apart from difficulties in continuing their journey, what have they added scientifically to our u

        • by Restil (31903)

          6 rovers could be put on Mars for a small fraction of what the currently debated health care bills are going to cost. The $700 billion stimulus package could have put 2800 rovers on Mars. It would likely have been just as economically beneficial too. Think of how much science based education and jobs THAT would have created.

          -Restil

    • Of course, their over-engineering of human risk-related matters leaves something to be desired. Anyone exploring uncharted territories has to accept the risks involved, including the possibility of a one way trip. Is that really such a bad thing though? There are plenty of risk-takers who thrive on this, and plenty of them would love to make history as part of the first colonization team on the moon (for example).

      When looking for scientists to do observations in Antarctica, they don't hire people who like adventure, because there is very little of that. Instead they choose people who are very patient and content with reading books, watching movies etc for very long periods of time. Adventurous people go mad from the boredom.

      I suspect it would be the same with Mars. It's awesome, but it's still essentially a desert, and chances are there won't be much to do except working. There's also the issue of safety. Safety

  • by Anonymous Coward

    lock the hubs first

  • by maxwell demon (590494) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @07:31AM (#30096412) Journal

    It's not just trapped in the sand? So we finally have proof there's intelligent life on Mars, which builds traps!

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by drinkypoo (153816)

      It's not just trapped in the sand? So we finally have proof there's intelligent life on Mars, which builds traps!

      No, it's a sand trap, which implies golf. We have proof there's arrogant bastards on Mars.

  • by OverlordQ (264228) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @07:35AM (#30096426) Journal

    Just goes to show that all those smart people sometimes make mistakes, why they should hire a couple of rednecks to help design the next version, they enjoy off-roadin'

  • mars rover blog.. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Frogg (27033) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @07:40AM (#30096446)

    here's a link to a blog by someone on the mars rover team, Mars and Me [blogspot.com]

    i've been following it for a while now - it's truly fascinating

    • by Tablizer (95088)

      a blog by someone on the mars rover team

      2009.04.23 - Rats! Got stuck in a dune.
      2009.04.24 - Still stuck
      2009.04.25 - Still stuck
      2009.04.26 - Still stuck
      2009.04.27 - Still stuck
      2009.04.28 - Still stuck ....

  • Use the arm ? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by smoker2 (750216) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @08:17AM (#30096590) Homepage Journal
    I wonder if they've thought of using the robotic arm, either to dig away some of the sand obstructing the wheels or to support the rover while they try to move it. I know from driving 360 excavators that your arm can be most useful in that respect, especially if you move the arm backwards at the same time as pushing down and driving. Maybe the arm's not strong enough, or the rover can't operate its wheels and the arm at the same time, but surely that's just programming. An alternative is to pick up small stones and place them by the wheels to get some traction. There is a more complete pictorial record here. [nasa.gov]
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ibsteve2u (1184603)

      The pictorial record you linked to is truly fascinating, but while looking at it, I realized something:

      NASA missed a golden opportunity to draw Kilroy on another planet.

      What is science, next to the chance to immortalize Kilroy?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      The end of the arm is a cluster of scientific instruments, not a bucket like your excavator. Not only can it not pick up anything, using it to push rocks/soils around or to lift the vehicle risks damaging or destroying the very instruments that are the rovers reason for being. It's akin to sticking your head into a grinder to save the tip of your little finger.

    • Re:Use the arm ? (Score:5, Informative)

      by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @02:14PM (#30099264) Homepage

      Using the arm to help isn't completely off the table, but pretty close, largely for reasons you conjectured about in your post. First, we can't actually push while driving, because the motor controllers are shared between the arm and the wheels -- you can run one or the other, but not both at once.

      We could, potentially, push down with the arm to lift Spirit slightly, then run the wheels. But Spirit's just not strong enough to make much difference. :-) In the best case, we can push down with maybe 70N of force, and that's if we had a hard surface to push on. (But if we had a hard surface to push on, we probably wouldn't be mired in this stuff in the first place.) For comparison, you'd need to apply ~ 650N to completely lift Spirit, so the arm can apply only about 1/10 of the needed force. As you can see, she wasn't designed to do one-handed push-ups. :-)

      Further, doing so would pose a high risk of damage to the arm itself, and since four of Spirit's science instruments -- about 2/3 of the total science payload -- live on the end of that arm, the potential downsides are quite significant.

      In addition, it's not completely clear that pushing down with the arm to partially lift Spirit would actually help: one effect of that would be to reduce the traction on the wheels, and not having enough traction is one of our big problems here.

      Resculpting the terrain is a less unlikely scenario, but something we're keeping in our back pocket for now. There are few suitable rocks within reach, we've never tried it and (again) would risk damaging the arm by doing so, and on top of all that we don't even know if it would actually help, since the rocks might simply slip quickly under the wheels without moving us forward much. Even so, if things get desperate enough, we might possibly try that one.

      The soil we're stuck in is very weird, and has some counterintuitive properties. It doesn't work like dirt or mud. We mixed up a batch of simulant to drive our test rover in, and while there are known differences between the simulant and the real soil, the experience of working with the simulant is quite illuminating. The stuff feels like flour and flows like water: run your hand through it, and it flows away from you like water does, it just stops moving sooner. Weird, weird stuff.

      • by Jesus_666 (702802)
        Can you tell us the simulant's composition? Is it something one can (safely) recreate at home? It sounds exactly like something many geeks would love to play around with. Including me.
        • Re:Use the arm ? (Score:5, Informative)

          by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @04:17PM (#30100386) Homepage

          It's equal parts -- can't remember if that's by weight or by volume, but I think it's by volume -- of Lincoln 60 fire clay and food-grade diatomaceous earth. (FGDE is normally used for, among other things, de-worming horses and killing centipedes. I tasted it. Bleah.)

          One entertaining afternoon a few months back, when we were testing out different mixes, fellow rover driver Paolo Bellutta and simulant designer Kim Lichtenberg (the mix is called "KimSim" :-) and I drove out to a local ranch, picked up a huge bag of food-grade diatomaceous earth, and drove back to Lab. Later, I was up to my elbows hand-mixing a batch of the stuff in a wheelbarrow. Ah, the things I get paid to do!

      • by Kagura (843695)
        Hey, I just read about ten of your blog posts for the first time! Keep up the good work... and try not to crash. :)
    • I am sure that this team of scientists and engineers, despite being intimately familiar with the rover's systems and having spent eight months studying the problem of getting it unstuck, have not thought of using the robotic arm yet. I hope they read Slashdot. :) Frustrating as it is that the rover's stuck in something that a good solid push would likely get it out of, one also has to consider the costs involved in adding that capability to future rovers. If adding arms for self-maintenance and so forth do
  • Just send a maintenance guy out there to give it a push. Perhaps the most efficient way to explore Mars in the future is to send an army of robots to do the exploring, plus a couple of humans just to service the robots and get them out of trouble spots.
    • by Jesus_666 (702802)
      We just send a Terminator.

      Arnold: "It's boring out hier. Vhen do I get to shoot something?"
      NASA: "Shut up and walk over to that crater and analyze the soil there."
      Arnold: "Vhone day I'll be back and zhen you'll all be sorry."
  • Human walks up in space suit. Picks up robot, dusts solar panels off with can of air spray, robot goes on.

  • Both rovers have been in this same sort of situation before. The first time it happened, NASA took a full-scale model out into their back yard to test various methods of getting them out. They've gotten the rovers out of sand before, they can do it again.
    • by Tablizer (95088)

      They've gotten the rovers out of sand before, they can do it
      again.

      They sounded more bleak this time, though, and have taken even longer to test ideas. In part because Spirit has a bum wheel, meaning poor grip. Oppy didn't have that problem when it was stuck.
                 

  • by Anonymous Coward

    People.

    A manned mission could have also accomplished all of the science Spirit has done in five years in a week, tops.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Tablizer (95088)

      A manned mission could have also accomplished all of the science Spirit has done in five years in a week, tops.

      And cost at least 100 times more.
           

  • I love that big bang theory episode
  • Gotta keep that camera spinning, over every shoulder. With 6 wheels, there's gotta be a couple shoulders some where... Nobody panic now, just because a wheel or two slips in the sand, does NOT mean that someone or some other big hairy thing is not digging under the wheels

  • ./getouttasand.sh
  • "but it's gonna take a whole lotta floorin'."
  • Soon after the primary mission phase was completed, a reporter asked, "How long are you going to run the rovers?". The reply was, "We are going to run them into the ground; as long as they last". They literally did run one them into the ground it seems.

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