Officials say Spirit likely fell victim to Mars' frigid winter
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - NASA is giving up on recovering its Mars rover Spirit, which it said likely fell victim to the planet's frigid winter after seven years of work, officials said on Tuesday.
The US space agency made the announcement as it was reviewing safety procedures after a crane accident at the Kennedy Space Center involving part of its new Mars rover, which is slated to launch in November.
Spirit and a sister craft named Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 for what was to be a three-month mission roaming opposite sides of the planet's equator for signs of water.
Opportunity remains in good health, but NASA lost radio contact with Spirit some 14 months ago. Ground control teams had hoped that, as the Martian spring advanced to Spirit's location, the rover would be able to recharge its solar power arrays and radio home.
"We no longer believe there is a realistic probability of hearing from Spirit," NASA said in a statement, adding that it would make one last attempt on Wednesday to make radio contact with the rover.
NASA says critical components on the rover probably failed from extremely cold temperatures during the past Mars winter. The rover explored a region known as Gustav Crater.
The ambitious follow-up mission slated for November will tackle a thornier question about the Martian environment by attempting to determine if the planet has or ever had the chemistry to support life.
Part of the spacecraft's launch preparations were put on hold, however, after the crane accident. The mishap on Friday involved part of the protective aeroshell cover for the $2 billion Mars Science Laboratory.
The rover must be launched between Nov 25 and Dec 18 when Earth and Mars are optimally aligned for the nine-month journey to Mars or face a two-year delay.
During a practice run on Friday to attach the two sections of the 4.6-meter diameter aeroshell, a crane operator from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, accidentally hit the wrong button and lifted the dome-shaped backshell while it was attached to a table weighing approximately 907 kilograms, project manager Richard Cook said.
"The lift engineer says 'Go down', and the crane operator says 'Going down' and unfortunately, in this particular case, pushed the other button and so the crane went up rather than down," Cook said.
"The backshell was lifted up a little bit and because the table that it sits on was attached to it still, it also lifted the table up."
The attachment points to the table are not the same ones that will be used to clamp together the actual flight hardware, but NASA was concerned lifting the extra weight, even for a few seconds, could have weakened the backshell's structure.
(China Daily 05/26/2011 page10)