Stuck Spirit Rover Images Its Belly
This panorama of images from the Spirit rover, taken on Sol 1925 (June 2, 2009), is helping engineers assess the rover's current state and plan her extraction from the soft soil in the region now called "Troy." The images were taken by Spirit's microscopi
Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

NASA?s Spirit rover, stuck in the Martian sand since May 6, has taken a picture of its underbelly to help mission engineers get a handle on the rover?s predicament.

Early last month, Spirit was continuing its journey around a low plateau called "Home Plate," when it hit what one rover team member called an "insidious invisible rover trap."

Since then, Spirit has been mired in the sandy soil up to its hubcaps, and rover engineers have been working to try to free the rover so that it can continue its now more than 5-year stint on the Martian surface.

Engineers had Spirit use its microscopic imager, located on the end of the rover's robotic arm, to peek underneath itself to get a better view of its sandy trap. The operation was tested out first with Spirit's twin rover Opportunity, which is currently still trundling along on the opposite side of Mars, and which just reached its 10-mile mark.

The panoramic mosaic of multiple images, taken on June 2, shows the region of soft soil now called "Troy."

Asked why the feature was given that name, Steve Squyres, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Rover Project, said, "Well, we had to call it something."

"The story of Troy is a rich one, with lots of characters and events, providing a good source of related names for other things in the area. For example, some of the soil we're working on right now we've named Ulysses," he added in an email to SPACE.com.

The image appears blurred because the microscopic camera was designed to focus on targets just a few centimeters in front of its optics.

Scientists are currently debating whether a small mound that appears in images to be touching Spirit's belly actually is, and whether or not it is a rock or soil, Squyres said. A rock touching the rover's belly plate would pose a greater risk to any attempt to move Spirit.

The panorama will help scientists with analyses and ground-based testing to recreate the rover's conditions before testing various options for extracting it from its current location.

Engineers are using a test rover back on Earth at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to test out strategies for extracting the rover. The test rover is identical to Spirit and Opportunity.

Adding to the difficulty of that task is Spirit's hobbled right front wheel, which has been dead for three years.

Some good news for Spirit has been the state of its energy supplies: Dust storms in recent weeks have cleaned off the rover's solar panels, boosting Spirit's energy supplies. While that won't give the rover more "oomph" for extracting itself, it does buy the rover team more time to try out all their options for freeing the stuck rover.