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Emily LakdawallaJuly 30, 2010

JPL begins actively hailing Spirit -- but is trying to manage your expectations (an editorial)

How's this for a heart-stopping headline?

NASA's Hibernating Mars Rover May Not Call Home

Spirit hasn't talked to Earth since March 22 -- so what new information could they have received that would make them pronounce Spirit's possible death? Is there some new analysis of the last bit of telemetry? Some new model indicating Spirit's survival was less likely than previously thought?

Spirit at Troy

NASA / JPL / Cornell / Glen Nagle

Spirit at Troy
Spirit blends into the shoulder of Home Plate in this artist's rendition showing its position at Troy. The rover took this panorama on its Sol 743 as she descended from Husband Hill, heading toward Home Plate, the circular plateau occupying the center of the image. Click to see Spirit in the valley to its right. The MERs are about the size of a golf-cart.

I can only imagine that JPL (by which I really mean NASA) is trying to manage expectations; in the end, if we do recontact Spirit, they'll be able to say "look at this miraculous thing we achieved" and if we don't, they'll be able to say, "we predicted this months ago." And they've got a lot of experience with the art of managing expectations.

Still: sheesh. I and thousands of other rover fans have been keeping our hopes alive, sitting vigil for Spirit since she went silent in March. We've marked the passage of time until the winter solstice and her darkest night; that happened on May 13, sol 2261. We calculated how many days before solstice her power failed -- 52 -- to figure the earliest possible date we could imagine her waking up -- July 4. But with her batteries severely drained, her core cold, her solar panels likely dustier now, and with her repeatedly trying to wake up to communicate and not quite getting through wakeup before draining her batteries again -- the likely scenario for her first attempts at waking from hibernation -- we all knew to wait at least until August or September, maybe even later before getting worried. It makes good sense for the mission to have waited until the end of July to begin attempts to actively contact the rover again.

For NASA to poke their heads out of the intensive care unit just now, as we're coming out of winter and just beginning to enter the "hope window" for when she could wake up, and tell us all, "By the way, remember, she might not wake up, she might be dead already!" -- well, I'll just say it's extremely irritating; as irritating as when they warned us, in May 2008, that Phoenix might not land safely.

I know Spirit might not wake up. But I'm not giving up hope, and neither are Spirit's fans, and I'm quite certain her engineers and scientists haven't given up either. I'm still waiting to hear from her. If we get to November and we still haven't heard from her, fine, we can talk about how maybe she'll never wake up, how maybe she was already dead in July. Until then, keep your pessimism to yourself, okay?

Read more: Spirit, mission status, Mars Exploration Rovers

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Emily Lakdawalla

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