End of the Line for Spirit Rover?

The Mars rover that has been stuck in talcum-powder-like soil the past 6 months is in a bad way, its NASA team reported in a press conference today. After months of analysis and testing here on Earth, "we haven't found a clear solution to how to get Spirit out of its predicament," said project manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Monday, the team will start spirit on its best bet—"the path of least resistance"—by trying to send it out the way it came in.

No one in the press conference was very upbeat about extricating Spirit following its "embedding" of last April. "Spirit may have met its match," said Douglas McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "This could be where Spirit remains." The press release had McCuistion being just plain discouraged. "There's a high probablility attempts to free Spirit will not be successful," was the quote.

All the glumness seems justified. Spirit had for years been dragging an inoperable wheel through the Martian soil. Now that the rover is stuck, another of its six wheels is acting up and may be jammed. The other four wheels are nearly buried in the dry, fluffy soil. And a look under the rover using its arm-mounted microscopic imager has revealed that a pyrimidal rock is just touching the underbelly of the rover. If the rover sinks further as it tries to churn its way out—as it almost surely will—the rover could hang up on the rock, taking its weight off the driving wheels. If that happens, it's "gameover," says Callas.

Attempting to back Spirit out has at least one advantage. That could save the rover the trouble of breaking its way through the brittle crust that it fell through on the way in, operators reason. But the exercise may just be going through the motions, says a Spirit team member who wishes to remain anonymous. "You can't let it die without making a valliant effort," the team member says. "This will be it."

Even if it is, it's worth noting that Spirit far exceeded the 90-day span of its promised mission. What's more, Spirit's counterpart, Opportunity, is still trudging along on the other side of the planet.