NASA gives up on Mars rover Spirit recovery

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Wed May 25, 2011 11:11am EDT

1 of 2. The deck of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is so dusty that the rover almost blends into the dusty background in this image assembled from frames taken by the panoramic camera (Pancam) during the period October 26-29, 2007. Dust on the solar panels reduces the amount of electrical power the rover can generate from sunlight each sol. The vertical projection used here produces the best view of the rover deck, though it distorts the ground and antennas somewhat. The eight-pointed star shape near the front of the rover (bottom of the image) marks the location of the camera mast, which is out of view of the Pancam atop the mast. NASA announced May 24, 2011 that it will cease its daily attempts to contact Spirit, the robotic rover on Mars that went incommunicado last year.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Handout

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA is giving up on recovering its Mars rover Spirit, which it said likely fell victim to the planet's frigid winter after seven years of work, officials said on Tuesday.

The space agency made the announcement as it was reviewing safety procedures after a crane accident at the Kennedy Space Center involving part of its new Mars rover, which is slated to launch in November.

Spirit and a sister craft named Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 for what was to be a three-month mission roaming opposite sides of the planet's equator for signs of water.

Opportunity remains in good health, but NASA lost radio contact with Spirit some 14 months ago. Ground control teams had hoped that, as the Martian spring advanced to Spirit's location, the rover would be able to recharge its solar power arrays and radio home.

"We no longer believe there is a realistic probability of hearing from Spirit," NASA said in a statement, adding that it would make one last attempt on Wednesday to make radio contact with the rover.

NASA says critical components on the rover probably failed from extremely cold temperatures during the past Mars winter. The rover explored a region known as Gustav Crater.

The ambitious follow-up mission slated for November will tackle a thornier question about the Martian environment by attempting to determine if the planet has or ever had the chemistry to support life.

Part of the spacecraft's launch preparations were put on hold, however, after the crane accident. The mishap on Friday involved part of the protective aeroshell cover for the $2 billion Mars Science Laboratory.

The rover must be launched between November 25 and December 18 when Earth and Mars are optimally aligned for the nine-month journey to Mars or face a two-year delay.

During a practice run on Friday to attach the two sections of the 15-foot (4.6-meter) diameter aeroshell, a crane operator from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, accidentally hit the wrong button and lifted the dome-shaped backshell while it was attached to a table weighing approximately 2,000 pounds (907 kg), project manager Richard Cook told Reuters.

"The lift engineer says 'Go down,' and the crane operator says 'Going down' and unfortunately, in this particular case, pushed the other button and so the crane went up rather than down," Cook said.

"The backshell was lifted up a little bit and because the table that it sits on was attached to it still, it also lifted the table up."

The attachment points to the table are not the same ones that will be used to clamp together the actual flight hardware, but NASA was concerned lifting the extra weight, even for a few seconds, could have weakened the backshell's structure.

"We've been doing stress analysis for the last couple of days. Essentially the initial results of that look like we basically are OK," Cook said.

There are concerns, however, about processing procedures and NASA has halted the rover's crane operations while a review is under way. The hiatus is not expected to impact the launch date, Cook said.

The aeroshell, built by Lockheed Martin, and the rover's cruise stage arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 12. The rover, currently at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, is due to arrive in June.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Paul Simao)

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