NASA Mars Spirit rover battles winter onslaught

NASA’s Mars rover missions diverging; Mars moon Phobos photos relased

NASA Mars Spirit
After weeks of trying to trying to get its Mars rover Spirit better positioned to handle the Martian winter, NASA said the spacecraft is now beginning full winter operations as best it can. 

NASA said Spirit's winter operations will consists of a single 7- a single X-band uplink and a single Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) downlink. The activity on each sol consists simply of a brief wakeup, an atmospheric opacity measurement, and then a shutdown for the rest of the day and night.

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NASA said Spirit will eventually enter a low-power hibernation mode, shutting down almost all functions except keeping a master clock running and checking its power status periodically until it has enough power to reawaken. It may go in and out of this mode a few times at the beginning and at the end of an extended hibernation period. 

NASA scientists are uploading schedules to Spirit for when to communicate with Earth or with the orbiting Mars Odyssey during the rest of this year and into 2011. Spirit will communicate whenever it has adequate power to wake up. Spirit will take a set of "before" images of surroundings from the parked position this week, for comparison with images in the Martian spring to study effects of wind, NASA stated. 

That is if it can actually perform any of these activities. NASA said Spirit will spend the coming winter month's tilted 9 degrees toward the south, an unfavorable attitude for the solar panels to catch rays from the sun in the northern sky. Spirit's parking positions for its previous three Martian winters tilted northward. Engineers anticipate that, due to the unfavorable tilt for this fourth winter, Spirit could be out of communication with Earth for several months. 

NASA added that a special Deep Space Network (DSN) test was performed with Spirit to confirm that even during the time of weakest signal, the DSN should be able to detect the rover's signal with the DSN's Radio Science Receiver (RSR) even if the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is transmitting.

In January 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 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. 

While there have been those occasional glitches, Spirit and its twin rover Opportunity have been wildly successful. Since landing on the red planet in January 2004 they have explored Mars for five years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission, NASA said. 

Meanwhile the Opportunity rover chugs along on the other side of the red planet. NASA said Opportunity recently finished the driving around the "Concepción" crater. The Concepción crater is of interest to NASA scientist because it seems to be what they call "geologically very young" with visible rays of ejecta radiating from the center of the crater. 

Opportunity is now driving toward the Endeavour crater, which when it gets there, NASA scientists expect to look inside a rocky bowl 22 kilometers (13.7 miles) across. 

In related Mars news, the European Space Agency this week showed off the first in a series of extreme close-up photos of the Mars moon Phobos. The photos, which show a pock-marked but otherwise relatively smooth surface, are the some closest shots of the Mars moon ever taken.   

The data and photos collected by the Mars Express satellite could help unwrap some of the mystery about the moon, the ESA said. Three scenarios are possible, one, that the moon is actually a captured asteroid. The second is that it formed at the same time as Mars formed below it. The third is that Phobos formed later than Mars, out of debris flung into Martian orbit when a large meteorite struck the red planet, according to the ESA. 

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