NASA will end communications with Mars rover Spirit

NASA moving focus to future Mars laboratory, Curiosity rover

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NASA today said it will make one last attempt on Wednesday to communicate with its long-lived Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, which last communicated with scientists on March 22, 2010.

NASA has been trying to communicate with Spirit via the agency's Deep Space Network of antennas orbiting Mars satellites in the hope that it might reawaken when solar energy becomes more available as the planet moves out of winter.  With inadequate energy to run its survival heaters, the rover likely experienced colder internal temperatures last year than in any of its prior six years on Mars. Many critical components and connections would have been susceptible to damage from the cold, NASA said.

More space news: NASA will use not-so-new technology for next spacecraft

Spirit has been stuck in a place NASA calls "Troy" since April 23, 2009 when the rover's wheels broke through a crust on the surface that was covering brightly-toned, slippery sand underneath. After a few drive attempts to get Spirit out in the subsequent days, it began sinking deeper in the sand trap.  In January 2010 NASA said it was resigned to leaving the rover in place and making adjustments to help it survive as a remote but stationary science robot. The rover's mission could continue for several months to years.

Spirit landed on Mars on Jan. 3, 2004, for a mission designed to last three months. Its twin, Opportunity, continues to operate and is in fact about 2 miles away from its ultimate goal - the Endeavour crater.  NASA says Endeavour if 13 miles across and could offer scientists more insight into the red planet's make-up.

NASA also noted that another reason to end communication attempts with Spirit is that the agency is prepping to launch the next big Mars exploration system, Curiosity.  NASA calls the laboratory, which is expected to operate for at least two years, the biggest astrobiology mission to Mars ever. The Mars Science Laboratory rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface, NASA said. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life.

Curiosity is a six-wheeled rover and each wheel has its own drive motor, and the corner wheels also have independent steering motors, NASA said.   Unlike earlier Mars rovers, Curiosity will also use its mobility system as a landing gear when the mission's rocket-powered descent stage lowers the rover directly onto the Martian surface on a tether.

"We're now transitioning assets to support the November launch of our next generation Mars rover, Curiosity," said Dave Lavery, program executive for solar system exploration said in a release. "However, while we no longer believe there is a realistic probability of hearing from Spirit, the Deep Space Network may occasionally listen for any faint signals when the schedule permits."

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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