NASA makes final attempt to contact silent Mars rover

There's been no communication with the rover in more than a year

More than a year after losing communication with the Mars rover Spirit, NASA is making one final attempt today to contact the robotic traveler.

NASA engineers long have been sending a series of transmissions in an attempt to reconnect with the rover, which scientists fear has succumbed to the frigid temperatures on the Red Planet. The last transmission ends today.

After that, Spirit will be given up for dead where it is stuck in the dirt. The robot was expected to operate for three months but roamed the surface of Mars sending back images and data for more than five years.

The rover, which has a robotic twin, Opportunity, that is still working on Mars, got into trouble last year when its wheels broke through Mars' crusty surface and got stuck in soft, salty sand underneath. For months afterward, NASA engineers worked to find a way to extricate the rover from the sand. But early in 2010 scientists proclaimed it permanently stuck, with two immobile tires on one side.

Spirit needs solar energy to stay warm enough to make it through the planet's frigid winter. NASA engineers tried to angle the stuck vehicle's solar array so it was pointing more toward the sun. However, if blowing sand and debris covered the solar arrays, they wouldn't be able to absorb enough energy to wake up the machine and run its few instruments.

The longer Spirit sat immobile, the slimmer its chances of ever reviving itself.

Many of the robot's critical components and connections would have been damaged be the cold.

NASA isn't giving up on using robots to investigate Mars, though. Opportunity is still roaming the planet and sending back information about what it's finding, and NASA is on schedule to later this year launch an SUV-sized rover on a new Mars mission.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, dubbed Curiosity, is a super rover that will carry cameras, chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors to investigate the Martian surface. All of these instruments are designed to help scientists figure out whether life ever existed on Mars and to prepare to send humans to the Red Planet.

"We're now transitioning assets to support the November launch of our next generation Mars rover, Curiosity," said Dave Lavery, NASA's program executive for solar system exploration, in a written statement. "However, while we no longer believe there is a realistic probability of hearing from Spirit, the Deep Space Network may occasionally listen for any faint signals when the schedule permits."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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