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Spirit rover in ‘critical’ condition on Mars

As published by MSNBC.com:

Spirit rover in ‘critical’ condition on Mars
Spacecraft may not be functional for days or weeks

MSNBC staff and news service reports
Updated: 5:51 p.m. ET Jan. 23, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. - NASA’s Spirit rover lay in critical condition Friday on Mars, coughing up only a few gasps of data, as engineers struggled to diagnose the ailment and also deal with the impending arrival of its twin spacecraft on the Red Planet.

The space agency heard twice from Spirit after two days in which the six-wheeled vehicle transmitted only gibberish or sporadic beeps to acknowledge commands from Earth. But the amount of data was small, and Spirit was nearly mute.

Engineers believe some sort of underlying hardware problem triggered the crisis. That has wreaked havoc with Spirit’s software and forced the rover to reboot its computer more than 60 times, project manager Pete Theisinger said. "The thing that causes the reset is not always perceived to be the same," he said, and that was making it more difficult to determine the source of the problem.

Spirit’s prognosis was uncertain. If the problem is purely a matter of bad software, NASA could reprogram the rover remotely, a step analogous to unplugging a computer and reinitializing it. But if there is a hardware problem, as is now suspected, Spirit can't be fully repaired.

“The chances that it will perfect again are not good, and the chances that it will not work again are also low,” Theisinger said at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That left a "broad middle" of partial functionality as the likeliest scenario for the balance of Spirit's mission, he said.

Asked how he would rank its condition if it were a patient, Theisinger said “critical.” Even under the best of circumstances, Spirit would not be back to normal for many days or even a couple of weeks, he added.

Double mission
At the same time engineers dealt with the crisis, Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, neared Mars for its own landing late Saturday.

Opportunity is the second half of an $820 million double mission to learn if Mars was once a wetter world capable of supporting life.

Not since the 1976 landing of the twin Viking landers has NASA had two working spacecraft on the surface of Mars. Sending two rovers was seen as a way to increase the chance of success: Only one in three international efforts to land on Mars has succeeded; some of the other spacecraft blew up, crashed or disappeared.

Three hundred scientists and engineers have been divided into two teams to work with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, each of which were slated to last at least 90 days on the surface of Mars. Theisinger has encouraged engineers to stay focused on Opportunity and not dwell exclusively on Spirit and its problems.

Nevertheless, the problems with Spirit will probably force a delay in the sequence of activities that Opportunity will go through after its landing, scheduled for 9:05 p.m. PT Saturday. It took Spirit nearly two weeks after its own Jan. 3 landing to unfold and roll onto the Martian soil.

Spirit began malfunctioning early Wednesday, its 19th day on Mars, transmitting little more than random strings of zeroes and ones, after NASA commanded it to run a motor inside its 5-foot mast. The rover never completed the sequence of tasks.

Spirit’s software has not worked properly since, confounding the “onion-peeling” efforts of engineers trying to uncover what is wrong, Theisinger said. Attempts to communicate with Spirit, either directly from Earth or through satellites in Mars orbit, have been spotty.

Spirit can stay in its current condition for some time while scientists work on the problem, Theisinger said. But the rover has been staying up through the night when it should be asleep. Although that's not a fatal problem, it can draw down its rechargeable batteries and trigger further problems.

The rover had taken thousands of pictures and had begun to carry out its first analysis of a Martian rock when what had been a steady flow of science data came to an abrupt halt.

Posted by Mark at January 24, 2004 10:11 AM | TrackBack

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