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Mars NASA Space Science

NASA Concedes Defeat In Effort To Free Spirit Rover 250

An anonymous reader writes "NASA has conceded defeat in its battle to free the Spirit rover from its Martian sand trap. The vehicle became stuck in soft soil back in May last year and all the efforts to extricate it have failed. NASA says that Spirit, which landed on the Red Planet over six years ago, will 'no longer be a fully mobile robot,' and has instead designated the once-roving scientific explorer a stationary science platform."
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NASA Concedes Defeat In Effort To Free Spirit Rover

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  • Well done, Spirit! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Iphtashu Fitz ( 263795 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @04:34PM (#30909406)

    Considering it was originally designed to only operate for 90 days and now has 2200+ days under it's belt, I'd say it's done a stellar job.

  • by tjstork ( 137384 ) <todd.bandrowsky@gma i l .com> on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @04:39PM (#30909478) Homepage Journal

    I think the next time we do robots on mars we should send them in pairs or teams so they can push each other out.

  • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @04:40PM (#30909492) Homepage

    It wasn't designed to operate for only 90 days. The intention was for it to last at least 90 days. But certainly nobody cut corners during construction because of that, so "that part can fail after 100 days".

  • by natehoy ( 1608657 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @04:49PM (#30909644) Journal

    Maybe, but then you've lost half your capacity to examine interesting bits of Mars. If Spirit and Opportunity had been dropped as a pair instead of on different sections of the Martian surface, we would only have studied one location on Mars instead of the two we got. There's also a good chance Opportunity would simply have mired or been damaged trying to dig Spirit out and we'd have two stationary science platforms right next to each other.

    A project like this always maximizes the amount of science per dollar. If you have enough money and payload to build two assets, you want to examine two places.

  • by Jeng ( 926980 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @04:50PM (#30909654)

    I definitely understand your use of the AC option.

    I also would hide my name if I wrote something that fucking stupid.

  • by dotgain ( 630123 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @04:52PM (#30909700) Homepage Journal
    While you're correct, over 2000 days is still no less impressive.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @04:53PM (#30909714)
    way to forget that resources are limited and nasa is a luxury.way to forget that nasas acheivements are just tapering off. way to forget underscore highlight cobble together some other meaningless attempt at childishness that nasa is expendable. way to print up in bold type that nasas cost benefit ratio has sagged to an all time low. way to forget that the kids who wanted to stare at the stars are coming up to retirement and todays kids just want to stare at youtube. way to look at me putting an intelligable response to your drivle in the style of you!
  • by natehoy ( 1608657 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @05:08PM (#30909904) Journal

    Given the relative distances, the additional complexity, the long transit times, and all the other factors, this project WAS done on a shoestring budget. Recall that the Rover project was part of NASA's newish directive to get the most useful information for the least possible money.

    So what, pray tell, would have been the advantage of sending a human (other than shakier photos of the same rocks)? It would have cost an order of magnitude more money to haul a few people and all the supplies needed to keep them alive for a year-long mission, and most of that mission would have been spent with the astronauts in the ship on the way there and back. Time onsite would have been, at best, a month or so. Probably less.

    By making this a one-way trip and sending collection instruments that don't need to consume, breathe, and excrete on the way there, we actually got two useful instrument packages there and got 6 years of good science (and counting). We gathered good information about a couple of interesting spots on the surface of Mars, what it consists of, and what resources may be available to support an eventual manned mission.

    I'd rather have that then spend ten or twenty times the money, have less science, and have a shaky photograph of a footprint.

    I think we need to send people there. But when we do, it should be a one-way trip. We should continue to send robots until we figure out a good spot for an initial landing site, then send a few more robots to build a permanent, self-sustaining base there. THEN we send people.

    The Moon would be a good training ground, and having a permanent base there would teach us a lot about doing this with Mars. And beyond.

  • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @05:16PM (#30910024) Homepage
    From TFA:

    After Spirit became embedded, the rover team crafted plans for trying to get the six-wheeled vehicle free using its five functioning wheels - the sixth wheel quit working in 2006, limiting Spirit's mobility. The planning included experiments with a test rover in a sandbox at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., plus analysis, modeling and reviews. In November, another wheel quit working, making a difficult situation even worse.

    Given that this decision makes a lot of sense. With multiple wheels not functioning, even if they could get it out it would likely have trouble continuing to move. When the first wheel gave out they already had substantial issues. The failure of a second wheel also suggests that the wheels are in general nearing the end of their effective lifespans so the expected pay-off of getting the rover free would not be as high since the probability of further wheel failure soon would be high. This is a good, carefully thought out decision.

    I'm a little annoyed at headlining this about NASA conceding defeat. The rover will still be extremely useful and has been far more successful than was hoped. We've also learned a lot from both Spirit and Opportunity not just about Mars but also about good engineering tricks and the like for rovers. Future probes will be much more successful because of what we've learned working with these rovers. Good job all around. This is exactly the sort of success that NASA should be having. It captures the imagination and makes us look out to the great frontier.

  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @05:27PM (#30910182) Homepage Journal

    That's the risk you run when you go for "funny". If you see "the comedian" in somebody's "achievements" page, you know he's not a karma whore. If the moderator doesn't think it's funny, he (or in this case probably she) will mod it down.

  • by Brian Feldman ( 350 ) <.gro.DSBeerF. .ta. .neerg.> on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @05:28PM (#30910194)

    Clearly the one woman on /. had moderation points today!

  • by Gerzel ( 240421 ) * <(moc.liamg) (ta) (terrefyllorb)> on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @05:31PM (#30910228) Journal

    A 'broken toy' that can still do some research and has outlasted its original mission plans how many times over?

  • by natehoy ( 1608657 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @05:36PM (#30910296) Journal

    Yeah, a real waste of a billion dollars. We could have spent that on, what, a month in Iraq? Bailing out three more failed institutions to ensure their CEOs got huge bonuses?

    What a shame, wasting our money expanding the horizons of Humanity.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @05:55PM (#30910604) why they haven't built and launched a dozen more of them to Mars already. They don't even need to change the design, proof is that they're still up there doing useful science. For something with an expected lifespan of 90 days that lasts a good 2200 or so, it seems stupid not to. Between the two of them it cost less than $1 billion to develop, launch and an operate them to this day from what I've read ($820 million to create them and get them there, and four mission extensions at $104 million total plus a fifth in the works). In other words, they were cheap by many standards, exceeded their mission goals and then some and still provide useful scientific data to this day.

  • by izomiac ( 815208 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @06:18PM (#30910888) Homepage
    While it's cheaper, does it really provide that much science? Sure, it's the most cost effective way to explore Mars, but does knowing the position, shape, and maybe the composition of a few Martian stones really help humanity?

    Probes and manned space flight advance two different academic fields. Probes tell us what's in our solar system. That's useful for astronomers, perhaps some advance physics, and generates some neat pictures. Manned space flight is much more expensive because of the added challenges, such as life support, shielding, and returning to Earth, which advance biology and engineering a bit more. OTOH, many of the same technologies can be used for humans on Earth, thus making them more useful IMHO. They also would generate more interest in space, hence more funding, and have a greater potential for eventual economic payoff.

    Here are some examples [] of technology that was developed for space travel that has made its way into everyday life. Notice the disproportionate amount of advances that can from manned space flight as compared to probes. Of course, the ratio might be a bit closer to dollars spent in each area, but there's low hanging fruit to be had in both. If we concentrate all of our money in probes then we'll eventually be spending billions to see one novel technology that's useful for more than just building better probes, as compared to dozens of technologies that might result from developing a manned spacecraft.
  • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @06:32PM (#30911050) Homepage

    90 days had nothing to do with design specs or the engineer's pessimistic estimates of how long components would last.

    90 days was how long before they thought the solar panels would be too covered in dust for the rover to function.

    That's it. That was why the 90 day limit. It's the only reason. Everything was designed to last as long as physically possible within the weight requirements, as one would expect to be sure they work at all on Mars. "I can be sure this will last 90 days on Mars, but past that all bets are off" is not a sentence any engineer said about any component.

  • by blind biker ( 1066130 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @07:15PM (#30911460) Journal

    then send a few more robots to build a permanent, self-sustaining base there. THEN we send people.

    You seem to be oblivious to the fact that controlling remotely robots from Earth is terribly difficult, due to the huge time lag. It would take centuries to build a "self sustaining base", with remotely controlled robots.

    Oh, you meant smart AI that needs no remote control? It will take a couple of centuries to DESIGN such robots, so all in all, we're better off sending people to Mars in the next decade or two. I'm getting tired of the ultra-cautious types like you. We'd be printing from woodcuts if things went at the pace you have in mind.

  • by UnknowingFool ( 672806 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @07:51PM (#30911814)

    Your post advocates a

    (X) technical ( ) legislative ( ) market-based ( ) vigilante

    approach to Rover problems. Your idea will not work. Here is why it won't work. (One or more of the following may apply to your particular idea, and it may have other flaws which used to vary from planet to planet before a bad solar system law was passed.)

    ( ) It requires too much power
    ( ) It may make situation worse
    ( ) It doesn't solve the problem
    ( ) It works here on Earth but not on Mars
    (X) It will work for two weeks and then it might get stuck
    ( ) It does not account for the climate of Mars
    (X) Marvin the Martian will not put up with it

    Specifically, your plan fails to account for

    ( ) Weight limitations on mission payload
    ( ) Space limitations on mission payload
    ( ) Extreme cold of Mars
    ( ) Atmosphere of Mars
    ( ) Difference between Mars gravity and Earth gravity
    ( ) Materials don't exist yet
    ( ) Survivability of materials on Mars
    ( ) Distance between Mars and Earth
    (X) NASA bureaucacy
    ( ) Technically illiterate politicians
    (X) Marvin the Martian
    (X) Democrats
    (X) Republicans
    (x) Ralph Nader

    and the following objections may also apply:

    (X) Ideas similar to yours are easy to come up with, yet none have ever been shown practical
    ( ) Solution is beyond mission scope
    ( ) Solution solves the wrong problem
    (X) Only delays the inevitable
    ( ) Cost limitations
    ( ) Requires redesign
    ( ) Scientific instruments may have to be excluded
    (X) Feel-good measures do nothing to solve the problem

    Furthermore, this is what I think about you:

    (X) Sorry dude, but I don't think it would work.
    ( ) This is a stupid idea, and you're a stupid person for suggesting it.
    ( ) Nice try, assh0le! I'm going to find out where you live and burn your house down!

  • by GlassHeart ( 579618 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @10:43PM (#30913030) Journal

    They can't do much more than what robots are doing now

    First of all, even if you're completely correct, I'm fairly certain that they can do the tasks more quickly, because the rover's average speed is only 10 mm/s. By May 2009, Opportunity had just passed the 16 km mark in its travels, while the manned Apollo 15-17 lunar rovers were driven about 90 km in about 11 hours!

    Secondly, while the rovers have been a marvelous success story, consider if they had gotten stuck like this three days instead of six years after landing. What's the return ratio on that cost, then? A human can obviously deal with far rougher terrain, and would be able to dig out of bigger trouble.

    and the cost doesn't justify the information gained.

    Sure, assuming that the humans don't actually discover something you didn't expect to find. But how do you already know what sort of information can be gained?

    Now, I actually agree that we should be very sensitive to the costs and potential returns of both robot or human missions, but robots have a long way to go before they can match human versatility. There are different costs and advantages to either approach, and neither can replace the other convincingly yet.

  • by ScottMaxwell ( 108831 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @11:38PM (#30913324) Homepage

    Don't get me wrong, Spirit's situation is bad. But it's not as bad as it sounds.

    We are not going to extricate Spirit by winter, that much is true: we have a handful of drive attempts left, we progressed about 7.4 cm on our best sol so far -- 4-5cm has been more typical for our recent drive attempts -- and we have over a meter to go (to the nearest likely extrication point) before we no longer have enough energy to drive. You can't argue with arithmetic: we're not going to make it in time.

    Instead, we'll focus our remaining drive attempts on improving Spirit's northerly tilt, which in turn improves her energy intake through the winter. We'll then hunker down for the winter and focus on performing stationary science, such as investigating the soil and rocks we've newly exposed during our extrication driving and participating in radio science experiments to determine whether Mars's core is liquid or solid. (Incidentally, how freaking cool is that?!)

    After about six months of stationary science observations, we'll start moving again, at least within a small area. If Spirit feels up to it, we might even get properly back on the road again next year, though her mobility will always be limited -- relative to what she used to be able to achieve -- by the fact that she now has two broken wheels, not just one. That second wheel failure was what put the kibosh on our first serious attempts at extrication from the "Troy" sand pit. We now have a workaround that has been showing some real promise; there's just not enough time to complete that path before winter stops us.

    As an important caveat, that "six months of stationary science" will be extended by however long Spirit goes into a low-power mode for the winter. We are likely not to hear from her at all for about six months, and during that time she can't make the observations that will contribute to the stationary science plan, so she'll probably be sitting still for an Earth year or so. Worst of all, during that low-power period, she might die: lack of energy means insufficient heating means components operating below design temperatures means, possibly, end of life. But if she survives that, she'll move again.

    In summary: Grandma was already limping, and now she's broken her leg. She's also probably going to go into a coma for a while. But we've known her a long time and she's a feisty sucker; don't ever, ever count her out.

  • by burning-toast ( 925667 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @01:25AM (#30913886)
    365days x 10 = 3650 (plus some leap days)

    Poster didn't say anything close to 10 years...

    When your warranty includes tolerance for solar flares, martian soil in it's parts, atmospheric re-entry, severe radiation storms, micro-meteors, sand storms, in excess of 200 degree (F) temperature swings, severe g-force shock on both launch and land, and "wear and tear while traversing alien soil", all while being constructed of the lightest materials possible powered by nothing other than the sun, then it's probably expected that even 90 days was hard to warrant against failure.

    Launch your laptop through those same paces. Put it in a zip-lock bag and place it in your freezer overnight, followed by flexing the screen quickly and shooting it with a pellet gun before throwing it off your 2nd story balcony into a pile of sand before tossing it in your pre-heated oven. Even this will be kinder to the electronics than is likely encountered daily on Mars. - Toast
  • by david.given ( 6740 ) <> on Wednesday January 27, 2010 @08:29AM (#30915704) Homepage Journal

    I agreed right up to the point you suggested the Moon as a good training ground. The Moon is far more harsh than Mars.

    The Moon has the huge advantage in that if everything goes pear-shaped you can do a crash return and get home. It's not hard to build an escape vehicle that can get from the lunar surface to Earth in a few days.

    On Mars, though, if things go wrong, you die.

    This makes the Moon an ideal place to get started on the hideously difficult job of setting up a permanent off-world base. Not only can we get people home if things go wrong, but we can also resupply on a short-term basis as needed --- and it will be needed, because as a first-attempt engineering project, things will always go wrong!

    Do you remember Skylab, the very first space station ever? The launch went badly wrong, and it sustained major damage, including the loss of the solar heat shield. The first crew had to be launched in a hurry to do repairs or the station would have overheated and released poisonous gases inside, rendering it uninhabitable! Had the station not been close enough to Earth that it was possible to reconfigure the manned mission to include the appropriate repair equipment, the station would have been a write-off.

Disks travel in packs.