The Spirit rover would be stuck in the mud — if there were any mud on the Martian surface where it is now trapped. Mars is too dry for that. Forgive some poetic license; "stuck in the dust" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Spirit, which landed in Gusev Crater on Mars in January 2004 and is still working, just isn't going forward or backward. Back in April its wheels broke through some crusty ground into thick, soft dust, and engineers back at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California haven't been able to get it out.
They've tried everything — everything you can try from Earth. They've tried turning it, backing it up, turning one wheel at a time — and no joy.
"This lonely spot on the edge of a crater may be where Spirit ends its adventure on Mars," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, in a "bittersweet" teleconference that just ended. "Spirit's facing the most challenging situation it's faced on Mars yet."
Controllers say they will send the rover new commands on Monday night to try to retrace its steps — backing out through the sand seems easier than pushing forward and hoping to get better traction — but the rover has gotten itself buried deeply enough that its bottom is impaled on some jumbled rock fragments.
"I'd like everyone to be hopeful, but I'd like everyone to be realistic," McCuistion said.We've been updating a slide show of the rovers' exploits since they arrived on Mars five years ago; take a look HERE.
The map above shows Spirit (black outline), about the size of a golf cart, impaled on the rim of a small crater, about 25 feet across and eight inches deep. If you look at this index of past images from Spirit, you'll see controllers beginning to realize by May 1 that they were in trouble — but they didn't think much of it at first since they'd gotten the rovers stuck and unstuck before. (Spirit's twin, Opportunity, continues to trundle along the surface on the opposite side of Mars, trying to reach a large crater before its luck runs out too.)
Much has been made of the rovers' longevity. NASA, perhaps trying to dampen expectations, originally said it expected the rovers to work for 90 "sols," or Martian days. Spirit just finished sol 2,083.
"Unfortunately, Spirit may have met its match in this one," said McCuistion.(Top image: computer rendition of Spirit, its wheels buried in dust. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.)