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Sun, Jan 25, 2004

Rover, Heal Thyself

Spirit Sends Back Self-Diagnostic Data

Any doctor will tell you that one of the best sources of information on a sick patient is the patient himself. That's certainly true for NASA's ailing Mars rover Spirit.

Just before noon on Friday, the rover, which has been in "safe" mode since Wednesday, sent to the orbiting Mars Odyssey probe a surprise burst of information, including data on its power subsystem. That's heady stuff for engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena (CA). The rover sent 73 megabits of information in all.

The transmission was interesting, since JPL sent Spirit a command to "sleep," which it seems as if Spirit totally ignored. JPL has said Spirit's flight software just isn't working right, in spite of commands to reboot the probe's system at least 60 times.

JPL scientists think the little rover with its bean stalk camera platform may have simply been overtaxed -- given too much to do in too short a period of time. But, accenting the positive, JPL says it can at least communicate to some degree with the rover.

"We believe, based on everything we know now, we can sustain the current state of the spacecraft from a health standpoint for an indefinite amount of time," Peter Theisinger, rover project manager, said. That will give engineers time to work on the problem.

Spirit's problems couldn't have come at a worse time. Its twin, Opportunity, was scheduled to land on the other side of the Red Planet Saturday night in a mirror mission designed to find signs of ancient life. Theisinger said the chances of a quick fix for Spirit doesn't appear to be in the offing. It could take days or even weeks, he said, to diagnose the rover's inability to obey commands from Earth. Sending it to its room isn't an option.



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