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Comment How you can help (Score 4, Informative) 238

As a named plaintiff in this lawsuit, I'm awfully happy to see the widespread support here on Slashdot. I'd like to be able to keep driving Mars rovers around without having to sign a form that says NASA can interrogate my priest, my doctor, my lawyer, my accountant, and my ISP to make sure I'm sufficiently uninteresting.

If you'd like to help, please consider donating to keep our amazing legal team afloat. The privacy you save could be your own. Thank you!

Comment Grr, both summary and story are misleading (Score 5, Informative) 155

We never particularly expected to hear from Spirit before this coming October +/- 1 month, making the suggestion that we're "beginning to realize she might never wake up again" more than a little misleading. According to our best models, the energy levels on Mars are just barely reaching the point where Spirit might wake up for even a few minutes a day, and hearing anything from her at this point would be a great stroke of luck. Have patience. She's there.

I understand that NASA is trying to manage expectations, but their way of doing it is bad management that needlessly demoralizes the team. My own personal expectation is that we damn well will hear from Spirit, and after a certain recovery period she'll be moving on Mars again.

Comment Re:It's not as bad as it sounds (Score 2, Informative) 250

My understanding was that improving the solar tilt would likely risk making it "more stuck" such that the probability of digging out after winter was through would be much lower.

That depends on what we do. Some actions would indeed risk embedding Spirit permanently; we're not going to do those if we can avoid it.

The most severe such action would be to bury the right front (RF) wheel. For better or worse, this would likely require the RF drive actuator to be significantly more cooperative than it has been. That's the wheel that died two years into Spirit's surface mission, and we tried to restart it during extrication. To our surprise, we've seen a little bit of life in it, but not so much that it can bury itself. So we probably couldn't do that even if we wanted to.

Instead, we'll probably focus mostly on arcing Spirit around so that her own structure (camera mast and high-gain antenna) casts fewer shadows on the deck, then maximize our wheelie on one side and flatten it on the other side in such a way as to aim the solar panels more to the north. The first part of this (arcing around) is what we'd be doing for extrication anyway, and the second part might reduce our extrication chances slightly but not too much. Only then, if our northerly tilt is still insufficient and we think we can materially improve it, will we take actions that could severely reduce the odds of eventual extrication. But it's not likely to come to that, if only because there's not a whole lot more we could do, period.

Comment It's not as bad as it sounds (Score 5, Insightful) 250

Don't get me wrong, Spirit's situation is bad. But it's not as bad as it sounds.

We are not going to extricate Spirit by winter, that much is true: we have a handful of drive attempts left, we progressed about 7.4 cm on our best sol so far -- 4-5cm has been more typical for our recent drive attempts -- and we have over a meter to go (to the nearest likely extrication point) before we no longer have enough energy to drive. You can't argue with arithmetic: we're not going to make it in time.

Instead, we'll focus our remaining drive attempts on improving Spirit's northerly tilt, which in turn improves her energy intake through the winter. We'll then hunker down for the winter and focus on performing stationary science, such as investigating the soil and rocks we've newly exposed during our extrication driving and participating in radio science experiments to determine whether Mars's core is liquid or solid. (Incidentally, how freaking cool is that?!)

After about six months of stationary science observations, we'll start moving again, at least within a small area. If Spirit feels up to it, we might even get properly back on the road again next year, though her mobility will always be limited -- relative to what she used to be able to achieve -- by the fact that she now has two broken wheels, not just one. That second wheel failure was what put the kibosh on our first serious attempts at extrication from the "Troy" sand pit. We now have a workaround that has been showing some real promise; there's just not enough time to complete that path before winter stops us.

As an important caveat, that "six months of stationary science" will be extended by however long Spirit goes into a low-power mode for the winter. We are likely not to hear from her at all for about six months, and during that time she can't make the observations that will contribute to the stationary science plan, so she'll probably be sitting still for an Earth year or so. Worst of all, during that low-power period, she might die: lack of energy means insufficient heating means components operating below design temperatures means, possibly, end of life. But if she survives that, she'll move again.

In summary: Grandma was already limping, and now she's broken her leg. She's also probably going to go into a coma for a while. But we've known her a long time and she's a feisty sucker; don't ever, ever count her out.

Comment Re:Use the arm ? (Score 4, Informative) 118

It's equal parts -- can't remember if that's by weight or by volume, but I think it's by volume -- of Lincoln 60 fire clay and food-grade diatomaceous earth. (FGDE is normally used for, among other things, de-worming horses and killing centipedes. I tasted it. Bleah.)

One entertaining afternoon a few months back, when we were testing out different mixes, fellow rover driver Paolo Bellutta and simulant designer Kim Lichtenberg (the mix is called "KimSim" :-) and I drove out to a local ranch, picked up a huge bag of food-grade diatomaceous earth, and drove back to Lab. Later, I was up to my elbows hand-mixing a batch of the stuff in a wheelbarrow. Ah, the things I get paid to do!

Comment Re:Use the arm ? (Score 5, Informative) 118

Using the arm to help isn't completely off the table, but pretty close, largely for reasons you conjectured about in your post. First, we can't actually push while driving, because the motor controllers are shared between the arm and the wheels -- you can run one or the other, but not both at once.

We could, potentially, push down with the arm to lift Spirit slightly, then run the wheels. But Spirit's just not strong enough to make much difference. :-) In the best case, we can push down with maybe 70N of force, and that's if we had a hard surface to push on. (But if we had a hard surface to push on, we probably wouldn't be mired in this stuff in the first place.) For comparison, you'd need to apply ~ 650N to completely lift Spirit, so the arm can apply only about 1/10 of the needed force. As you can see, she wasn't designed to do one-handed push-ups. :-)

Further, doing so would pose a high risk of damage to the arm itself, and since four of Spirit's science instruments -- about 2/3 of the total science payload -- live on the end of that arm, the potential downsides are quite significant.

In addition, it's not completely clear that pushing down with the arm to partially lift Spirit would actually help: one effect of that would be to reduce the traction on the wheels, and not having enough traction is one of our big problems here.

Resculpting the terrain is a less unlikely scenario, but something we're keeping in our back pocket for now. There are few suitable rocks within reach, we've never tried it and (again) would risk damaging the arm by doing so, and on top of all that we don't even know if it would actually help, since the rocks might simply slip quickly under the wheels without moving us forward much. Even so, if things get desperate enough, we might possibly try that one.

The soil we're stuck in is very weird, and has some counterintuitive properties. It doesn't work like dirt or mud. We mixed up a batch of simulant to drive our test rover in, and while there are known differences between the simulant and the real soil, the experience of working with the simulant is quite illuminating. The stuff feels like flour and flows like water: run your hand through it, and it flows away from you like water does, it just stops moving sooner. Weird, weird stuff.

Comment Re:90 days? (Score 5, Informative) 147

I'd like to point out that the engineers designing the rovers probably expected them to last longer than that (though certainly not 5 years). They probably budgeted for 90 days to keep the projected costs down so that NASA would chose the project. They knew that the budget would be extended once the rovers were there.

A lot of people seem to believe this, but it's really not true. I'm not saying we expected the rovers to drop dead at the stroke of midnight on sol 91, but even the wildest optimists on the project did not openly dare to hope that we'd even double that 90-sol lifetime. (We've just hit twenty times that number, as it happens. Incredible!)

Also note that underestimating surface survival time doesn't significantly reduce costs. Getting through the first 90 sols on Mars cost a little over $800 million. But most of that cost goes into design, development, testing, launch (about $100 million per rover goes to launch costs alone, IIRC), and so on. Operations, by comparison, is cheap: now that they're there, we run the rovers for ~ $20 million per year. If we'd known, for example, that we'd survive a year on the surface, we could have promised NASA four times the science for a ~ 10% cost increase; that would have made the project a better sell, and we'd have been fools not to do it.

Comment Re:Martian moon photos? (Score 4, Informative) 147

Yes, the rovers have photographed both moons.

Excellent link to some of the astronomy Spirit and Opportunity have done. Considering they were designed to be mainly geologists, the rovers have done a decent amount of astronomy (some of it not covered by that page), including observing a Phobos transit and a Deimos transit.

We've even imaged the Earth! On sol 63, Spirit took the first picture ever taken of the Earth from the surface of another planet.

Comment The unofficial diary of a Mars rover driver (Score 5, Interesting) 147

I'm one of MER's rover drivers; I've been on the project from the start. Which has been considerably longer than five years, as development started about 3.5 years before landing, so MER has been the focus of my life for nearly a decade now. I co-wrote the software (RSVP) we use to drive the rovers, and I've been using that software to drive Spirit and Opportunity ever since.

As a contribution to MER's five-year anniversary celebration, I'm blogging my personal mission notes from the early days of the mission. They'll be posted in "real time" -- roughly one update per day, five years after the fact -- at http://marsandme.blogspot.com/. First update will be tonight around 18:30 (Pacific time).

Be prepared to stick with it; it's a little slow for the first few days. And be aware that it's a personal activity, not a JPL-sponsored activity, so I occasionally swear and stuff. But if you're a fan of the rovers, it will, I hope, give you a new insight into what it's been like to be a small part of an historic adventure.

Ah, and for twitterati: you can follow the official MER feed at http://twitter.com/MarsRovers; you can follow me at http://twitter.com/marsroverdriver.

Space

Submission + - Spirit Outlasts Viking 2 Lander

ScottMaxwell writes: "Spirit, the Mars rover designed for a 90-day mission, has now outlasted the Viking 2 lander. Viking 2 survived until its 1281st sol (Martian day); Spirit is now on sol 1282 and counting. Assuming both rovers continue to weather the ongoing dust storms, Spirit's sister, Opportunity, will reach the same age in a few weeks. They aren't breathing down the neck of the all-time record just yet, though — the Viking 1 lander lasted 2245 sols on the surface of Mars; Spirit and Opportunity won't break that record for another 2.7 Earth years."

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