Geek Trivia: A trial of the Spirit

What technical glitch crippled the Mars Spirit rover mere days after touchdown, but had a deceptively simple technical solution?

Editor's note: Since one of NASA's Mars rovers recently escaped the executioner's axe, the Trivia Geek is using that as an excuse to recycle this Classic Geek, which originally ran on Jan. 3, 2006.

Two years ago this week, Spirit -- the first of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers -- touched down on the Red Planet, inaugurating a period of unbounded surface exploration that continues even as we speak. The sheer amount of Geek Trivia (and, of course, science) provided by this mission could fill dozens of articles -- indeed, Spirit has proven so remarkable that scientists renamed asteroid 37452 in its honor -- but we'll try to hit the high spots.

While a number of NASA missions have made photographic history, Spirit has made its own historic contributions to the astronomic photographic archives. On Jan. 6, 2004, the rover's panoramic camera (or "pancam") took the highest resolution image ever captured on the surface of another planet. (It was also the first color photo taken by Spirit.) Twelve million pixels (4000 x 3000) imbued the wide-frame image of the Sleepy Hollow crater.

One month later, Feb. 6, 2004 marked the first grinding of a rock on Mars using artificial, mechanical means. Spirit's Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) ground out a 2.65-millimeter deep impression on a rock sample designated Adirondack, illuminating the inner layers for observation by the rover's spectrographic sensors.

On March 9, 2005 -- after more than a year on the Martian surface -- Spirit received some unexpected ad hoc maintenance from Mother Nature, combined with a rather momentous scientific opportunity. The rover's solar panels suddenly jumped from roughly 60 percent efficiency to more than 90 percent.

The cause was a flyby from a Martian dust devil, which likely swept a year's worth of grime from Spirit's solar panels and offered scientists a chance to review accidentally captured data on the rarely seen Martian meteorological phenomenon.

Yet, for all its myriad and marvelous technical achievements (to say nothing of help from the winds of good fortune), not even so fine an instrument as Spirit is beyond the need for tech support. On Jan. 21, 2004 -- less than three weeks after touchdown -- Spirit suffered a crippling technical glitch that baffled operators and engineers for days, despite the deceptively simple solution.


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