The chances of ever again hearing from the stuck Mars rover, Spirit, is becoming more and more slim now that it has officially failed to respond to calls from Earth, repeatedly.
However, NASA will make one last-ditch attempt to communicate with Spirit. If there continues to be no contact in the next month, the space agency will scale back its listening campaign for Spirit and focus on its healthy companion, Opportunity.
The solar-powered rover got stuck in a sand trap in 2009 during a routine drive. Despite efforts to break free, it remained stuck and could not tilt toward the sun as the Martian winter was ’round the corner. It ultimately went into hibernation, lacking an adequate amount of energy to reach its solar panels.
Engineers had expected Spirit to wake up once there was maximum sunlight where it’s trapped. But that point came and went earlier this month with no response.
Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis said:
“I would be surprised if we re-establish communication — happy but surprised…It’s been so long.”
Ground controllers are attempting to page Spirit over a range of frequencies and at various times during the day in the event its internal clock stopped working and it loses track of time. They also are commanding the rover to turn on its backup radio transmitter in case the central one is dead.
At some point, NASA will have to declare Spirit lost if there’s no word. When that happens, efforts will be reduced to sporadic listening for it through the end of the year, Callas said.
Both Opportunity and Spirit parachuted to polar sides of planet Mars in 2004. They worked together, beyond their original, three-month mission during which they discovered geologic evidence of water on the red planet.
While Spirit’s odometer stayed stuck at 4.8 miles, Opportunity ceased to explore the rim of Santa Maria crater on Mars and is currently rolling toward another crater. So far it has racked up 16.6 miles.
Jim Bell, an astronomer from Arizona State University said the loss of communication came at the worst possible time because Spirit was doing valuable science while it was immobile.
“It’s disappointing if we have, in fact, lost the mission…But it’s the best kind of disappointment you can have. We had a phenomenal adventure with that rover.”