Dec
12
2007

Accidental tourist: Bad wheel on Mars rover leads to big discovery

Rolling discovery: The Mars rover Spirit, similar to this NASA rover called Fido, has made an unusual discovery of clues to life on Mars because of a bad wheel.
Rolling discovery: The Mars rover Spirit, similar to this NASA rover called Fido, has made an unusual discovery of clues to life on Mars because of a bad wheel.Courtesy NASA
There’s nothing quite as deflating, figuratively, as a getting a flat tire. And what about if you’re a space rover on Mars, where there’s no shop to go to get your tire fixed?

That’s what NASA’s Spirit Mars rover has been dealing with since its right front tire went bad nearly two years ago. It didn’t go flat, but it’s quit turning forcing NASA to move the rover around in reverse ever since, trailing the stuck wheel behind.

But nearly a year later, that astronomic misfortune has led to an interesting discovery. Ruts carved by the bad wheel last May churned up a bright spot in the rover’s wake.

Rover guiders turned the craft back to the colorful streak for a closer look and discovered that the rock contains high levels of silica. Upon further investigation, however, another nearby rock cracked open that was jam-packed with silica.

You’re wondering what’s the big deal?

Well, on Earth high levels of silica occur only in two places: hot springs or fumaroles, which are environments near volcanoes where acidic steam rises through cracks in the ground. In each of those environments on Earth, water is present and the area is teeming with life forms.

NASA Mars researchers are terming the discovery, made through these very accidental means, as one of the biggest breakthroughs to discovering life forms could have existed on the Red Planet.

By the way, if the bad wheel isn’t enough of a problem for Spirit, it’s also been through a bad dust storm which has coated much of its solar panels with grit. Because of that, it’s only operating at about 30 percent power and rover operators will soon be driving it up a higher altitude for a rest and to have the panels wind-cleaned.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

do you think people will ever live on mars

posted on Thu, 12/13/2007 - 12:45pm
Thor's picture
Thor says:

In my opinion based on all the data that I've seen from the Mars rover missions (and I'm by no means an astronomy professional), it probably was much more likely that life would have been sustainable on Mars in the past than in the future. What little water is left on the planet seems to be a frozen state most of the time. For us to live on Mars today, we'd have to bring a lot of water, air and food to keep us living. What could change that equation is figuring out ways to grow food on space stations, which is another project NASA is beginning to work on.

posted on Thu, 12/13/2007 - 4:29pm

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