"NASA scientists say they have lost contact with the robot rover Spirit on Mars and are unsure what caused the problem. Spirit project manager Pete Theisinger told a news briefing that there was a "very serious anomaly" in communications with the six-wheeled craft, which landed on Mars on January 3 on a planned three-month mission to explore the geologic history of the planet.
Theisinger said on Thursday scientists had been unable to communicate with Spirit for about 24 hours and had so far been unable to explain the source of the problem. "There is not one single fault that explains this," Theisinger said, adding that mission scientists had worked throughout the night on scenarios ranging from a major power failure to a software or memory corruption.
Mission managers said Spirit was not completely dead, and had sent out a communication beep and default signals. But they said several attempts since Wednesday afternoon to send commands to the rover and to receive data from it via the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter and the Mars Odyssey orbiter had failed. The grim news dampened the elated atmosphere at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where mission controllers have delighted up until now at the virtually flawless landing on Mars.
Spirit last week began its first tentative journeys sampling the surface soil of the Gusev Crater -- a barren, wind-swept basin that scientists believe may have been the site of an ancient lake bed once fed by a Martian river. The first hitch in the mission came on Wednesday when a thunderstorm in Canberra, Australia, prevented mission controllers from transmitting command sequences from the Canberra large dish antenna complex to Spirit on its 18th day on the red planet.
Project managers initially seemed unconcerned at the setback but are now examining whether the communications glitch may have contributed to the more serious problems with Spirit. Mission managers said on Thursday that the Spirit communications problems would have no effect on the scheduled arrival on Saturday on the opposite side of Mars of Spirit's twin exploration rover, Opportunity. The two robotic rovers are the most advanced missions to date in man's 40-year quest to discover the geologic history of Mars and whether it was ever sufficiently warm or wet enough to sustain a recognisable form of life."
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