The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, as you may or may not have heard, is STUCK. Rover operators have tried all sorts of maneuvers to get Spirit out of the sand, but nothing has worked. I’m amazed at how persistent the rover team is on trying to free the rover. They’ve tried going backwards, and using the robotic arm to move the sand around Spirit. Still no good. Two of the wheels aren’t working now either. I can’t believe Spirit is in such a bad position. Of course this means it can’t go anywhere or see anything new, but…
Even if the rover doesn’t get out it can still be useful in such a way that it was never intended to be! The rover team has become very inventive in what they’ve thought to do with Spirit. Mars wobbles, or “precesses“, as it rotates on its axis. A stationary probe (like the stuck Spirit) would be very useful in measuring how Mars spins. The rover team has thought of a plan of how to measure this. This is how looking past your problems and working with what you have, rather than what you wished you had, can be a really important skill!
Why exactly would we care about Mars’ wobble? Because how a planet precesses is slightly different depending on whether it has a solid or molten core. Earth has a molten core, but if its core were solid then our own planet’s wobble would be different. Wouldn’t that be weird? Not to mention Earth wouldn’t have a magnetic field. Exogeologists (myself included) want to know what Mars’ core is like, so measuring precession would give very good information on the interior structure of Mars. I’d find out so much more about the planets if I knew this. It would help a lot in understanding the way they all work.
There’s only one problem. Martian winter is coming soon! This means decreased sunlight for the solar powered rover. I’m not an expert on robotics, but I do know that if Spirit runs out of power (its “spirit”), it’ll go into hibernation and use the little sunlight it receives for solely charging its battery. When it’s in hibernation, a rover can’t communicate with Earth. That could be a big problem, I think, for the team of rover operators and for myself. I get lots of good data from that rover! What’s more, the rover has survived three winters before this by tilting its solar panels northward in order to get the best angle to the sun. But doing this isn’t possible in Spirit’s current predicament. I sure hope this can be fixed before the season changes!
I hope you thought this was as interesting as I did, and I’d like to officially wish the Spirit rover team good luck!
I’m Petra Stone, and Exogeology ROCKS!