Stuck Mars Rover Hits Snag In First Escape Attempt

A panoramic view of the Mars Rover Spirit showing the terrain surrounding the location called “Troy”
This full-circle view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the terrain surrounding the location called "Troy," where Spirit became embedded in soft soil during the spring of 2009. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This story was updated at 6:15 p.m. EST

NASA's Mars-exploring Spirit rover received its commands Tuesdayto attempt an escape from a sand trap, but it made little progress because of a precarious tilt, mission managers reported today.

Spirit has been stuck in the Martian dirt since April, whendrove into a spot of soft terrain called "Troy" back in April.

Mission managers sent the drive commands to Spirit at4 a.m. EST (0900 GMT) today. But rover's wheels spun for less than one second because it sensed more lateral tilt than it was allowed.

Rover drivers have allowed the robot less than one degree of roll and pitch until they are more confident with the rover's movements during the extrication process.

Mission managers spent the past six months devisingan escape plan to move the rover out of the sand pit. They tested them withmodel rovers back on Earth that are essentially replicas of Spirit andits twin, Opportunity.

Rover drivers decided that the best strategy would be tohave Spiritbacktrack, moving forward to retrace the tracks that brought it into itscurrent predicament. (The rover's broken right front wheel has meant thatSpirit's primary mode of driving is backwards.)

After those two steps, Spirit was supposed to take a three-frameMicroscopic Imager mosaic of its underbelly where a rock may be touching therover, which has complicated the escape attempt. Spirit was also to snap picturesof its middle wheels, its pre- and post-drive positions and the area around itwith its front and rear Hazcam camera systems.

The rover teamhas spent Tuesday analyzing the data Spirit sent back and will decide what steps to take next,whether to continue on with the same strategy or try something different, onlyafter that data has been analyzed. The commands for Spirit's next move will be completed no sooner than Wednesday, according to the latest report.

Mission managers warn that the process to free Spirit, whichhas been on Mars for nearly six years now, is likely to be slow and takeseveral weeks. The rover and its twin Opportunity landed on Mars in January2004.

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Andrea Thompson

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.