May 12, 2009

Mars rover faces dangerous situation

The U.S. space agency says its Mars rover Spirit is facing a dangerous situation, slipping in soft soil with its wheels sinking halfway into the ground.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers and scientists have temporarily suspended driving Spirit while they study the ground around the rover and conduct simulations of driving options with a test rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Spirit is in a very difficult situation, JPL's John Callas, project manager for Spirit and its twin rover Opportunity said. We are proceeding methodically and cautiously. It may be weeks before we try moving Spirit again. Meanwhile, we are using Spirit's scientific instruments to learn more about the physical properties of the soil that is giving us trouble.

NASA said Spirit has been driving counterclockwise from north to south around a low plateau called Home Plate for two months. The rover progressed 400 feet on that route before reaching its current position.

Officials said problems that Spirit exhibited in early April -- lost memory, computer resets and failure to conduct communications sessions -- have not recurred, although investigations have yet to determine the cause of the problems.

Both Spirit and Opportunity have operated more than five years longer than their planned missions of three months.