Air bag blocking Mars rover's path

Spirit's trek delayed

also, early antenna flaw apparently resolved itself

January 08, 2004|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A couple of minor "hiccups" in getting NASA's Spirit rover settled in on Mars have delayed the rover's roll-off from the landing platform until at least Wednesday, Jet Propulsion Laboratory officials said.

The problems involved the rover's high-gain antenna, which provides a high-speed data link directly with Earth, and the collapsed air bag that cushioned the craft's landing in Gusev Crater on Saturday.

Neither problem was expected to seriously affect the overall mission, the officials said at a news conference yesterday in Pasadena, Calif.

Researchers could not hide their eagerness to begin using the rover's scientific instruments to sample rocks and soil at the landing site, which might be an ancient lake bed.

"We are champing at the bit to get this puppy off the lander and get driving," said the JPL's Art Thompson, a robotics engineer.

The first problem apparently has resolved itself.

When the team first started moving the lollipop-shaped high-gain antenna to orient it toward Earth, engineers noticed short spikes in the electrical current it was drawing, suggesting the motors were encountering difficulty in moving it.

But when they went back and tried to move the antenna again, it moved smoothly, said Arthur Amador, mission manager for the fifth Martian day.

"There must have been some debris in the motor housing or stickiness that was taken care of" in the last maneuvering, he said. "Yesterday, everything came back pretty much perfect."

The second problem involves one of the crumpled air bags, which is sticking out slightly from under one of the ramps that engineers hope to use to drive Spirit off the lander.

The bag prevented the ramp from reaching all the way to the ground.

The team tried retracting the air bag a little bit, but that did not work.

So yesterday they were planning to try what Thompson called a "lift-and-tuck" maneuver in which the lander petal attached to the ramp will be lifted out of the way while the bag is retracted.

Even if that does not work, the rover can be driven off the lander in two other directions.

In either of those cases, the craft would have to perform a delicate pirouette to orient itself in the direction in which the geologists want to proceed.

Spirit sent one more major picture back to Earth overnight Tuesday, a high-resolution, three-dimensional black-and-white image showing the same area in the color photograph released Tuesday.

"We're getting slow glimpses of the world around us," said Cornell University's James Bell, who developed the camera. The images "will be used to determine how to drive the rover through this terrain," he said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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