Losing Spirit?

Oh, Oh! It seems NASA/JPL is having some problems with Spirit, the rover on Mars.

“Spirit has been displaying some anomalous behavior,” said Project Manager John Callas, who noted the rover’s unsuccessful attempts to flip itself over and otherwise damage its scientific instruments. “And the thousand or so daily messages of ‘STILL NO WATER’ really point to a crisis of purpose.”

The “robot geologist,” as NASA describes Spirit, has been operating independently for over 990 Martian sols—nearly the equivalent of three Earth years. However, scientists estimate that, in recent weeks, Spirit has been functioning on the level of a rover who has been on Mars for approximately 6,160 sols.

The Onion article later continues with,

Project organizers said the most distressing instance of erratic behavior occurred last week, when images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed that Spirit had scrawled the message ‘FUCK MARS’ in the thick, iron oxide dust that gives the planet its characteristic red color.

The fun part of that last comment is that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter really has managed to take excellent close ups of Opportunity, Spirit’s sister rover (very large version). The current image shows not only Opportunity next to Victoria crater but also the tracks leading up to it. Even if the mission engineers didn’t think up any appropriate comments to write in the Martian sand/dust.

The amount of data returned in the last couple of years from these two robots will drive many, many PhD thesis. It is an example of the best bang for the buck when spending money on space research. People (or pigs) in space might seem sexy, but the amount of science verses the amount of support necessary isn’t worth it. And there is no way a manned mission to Mars could have been extended this long.

This is an excellent example of the Bush administrations blind eye to reality and not politics. People on the moon or a manned mission to Mars make for good headlines; they resurrect feelings of the zenith of American scientific power. Unfortunately, the nadir is that Bush decided to plan this mission without funding, interest or understanding. It is a little like David Kuo’s Faith Based Initiatives – “Just give me a fucking manned thing on Mars!”

At least the Rovers aren’t as crazy. And I, for one, still haven’t lost Spirt.

 Hat Tip: Phil Plait/Bad Astronomy

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