NASA's beleaguered Mars rover Spirit, which has been hibernating on the surface of Mars since March, is facing its toughest challenge yet – the harsh conditions of the Martian winter. And the rover may lose.
Spirit has been stuck in Martian sand for more than a year, and in January, NASA abandoned all attempts of extricating the long-lived rover, rechristening it instead as a stationary probe.
But Spirit entered a hibernation-like state on March 22, and while mission controllers are cautiously optimistic about its chances of survival, they still have yet to hear any communication from the rover.
"It will be the miracle from Mars if our beloved rover phones home," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "It's never faced this type of severe condition before – this is unknown territory."
Spirit and its robotic twin Opportunity have been exploring different parts of Mars since January 2004. Both rovers have far outlasted their initial 90-day missions and are now in the middle of their seventh year exploring Mars.
"Our estimation is that Spirit has experienced what is called a low-power fault, where there is not enough energy being produced by the solar arrays to make up for the energy being used by the rover," John Callas, project manager for Spirit and Opportunity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told SPACE.com.