NASA Mars rover Sprit sleeps with the Martians

NASA’s Mars Rover Spirit now in Winter solstice; Will rover ever wake up?

With the Mars Winter solstice officially upon it, NASA's Mars Rover Spirit has disconnected itself with the outside world and is no longer communicating and the space agency says it's not sure when the rover will wake up.  No communication has been received from the rover since March 22. 

As expected, it is likely that Spirit has experienced a low-power fault will use the available solar array energy to recharge her batteries, NASA said. When the batteries gain enough charge, Spirit will wake up and communicate over X-band. When that does happen, Spirit will also trip an up-loss timer fault. This fault response will let the rover communicate over Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) as well, NASA said. 

21 critical future NASA missions 

NASA said it is now listening for any X-band signal from Spirit through the Deep Space Network. The Mars Odyssey orbiter is also listening over any scheduled UHF relay passes. 

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. 

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.

Meanwhile, Spirit's twin rover Opportunity made news last week by snapping a view of the rim of the red planet's Endeavour crater, the rover's ultimate destination.

 The Mars rover set out for Endeavour in September 2008 after spending two years exploring the Victoria crater.  NASA says Endeavour if 13 miles across, some 25 times wider than Victoria crater and could offer scientists more insight into the red planet's make-up.

Opportunity is being challenged on her current trip by the need to balance her recharge efforts against the need to stay warm, NASA stated.  That is, if the ship doesn't expend a minimum amount of energy into the electronics during a given time period, the craft risks thermostatic heaters coming on that will consume even greater amounts of energy. At this point, the balancing act is primarily an impact on driving as Opportunity can at anytime park on a sunny northerly slope to satisfy survival requirements, NASA stated. 

NASA recently upgraded the software controlling its Opportunity to let it make its own decisions about what items like rocks and interesting red planet formations to focus its cameras on.

The system is called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, or AEGIS and it lets Opportunity's computer examine images that the rover takes with its wide-angle navigation camera after a drive, and recognize rocks that meet specified criteria, such as rounded shape or light color. It can then center its narrower-angle panoramic camera on the chosen target and take multiple images through color filters, NASA stated. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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