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Thursday, January 8, 2004

NASA Runs Into Trouble

Mars Exploration Rover.
Mars Exploration Rover.
Credit: NASA
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover program has hit a series of snags that could delay or derail the mission to find evidence of water on the surface.

First, Spirit has been having an intermittent current spike in its main antenna. Engineers are still monitoring this. If the antenna does not work, data transmission from the rover will be extremely limited, resulting in much less science capability.

Also bugging the rover is getting off the landing capsule. The capsule is designed to be surrounded by airbags to cushion the landing on Mars. After landing, the capsule retracts the airbags to clear the way for the rover to dismount and to eliminate risk of entanglement in the rover's solar panel arrays or wheels. Unfortunely, the airbag is refusing to retract correctly, leading to several days of delays, possibly as late as next Wednesday, as NASA tries to solve it. If all else fails, NASA can try to retract other sides of the airbag and rotate Spirit, or simply to try to run over the airbag.

The final problem and the potentially most devastating to the mission is the data that the lander has sent back so far. The crater floor, which was thought to have been composed of sedimentary deposits from water, has turned out to be a frozen bed of lava, strewn with rocks. Scientists are now theorizing that the crater was covered by lava from a volcano 100 miles away. If the sedimentary deposits are unreachable, we will still learn a great deal about Mars, but there is not much hope of finding evidence for liquid water, a key component in the search for ancient life.

All of these problems are currently described as minor by NASA, however. After all, they have succeeded again where no other nation has -- landed on Mars.

(More info: Voice of America)

- posted by Brian @ 21:50 EST