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Hope for Mars Rover

Aired January 23, 2004 - 13:00   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. From the CNN center in Atlanta, I'm Kyra Phillips. It's Friday, January 23.
As we start this hour, we're talking about signs of life from Spirit. No one's popping champagne, but NASA scientists are cautiously optimistic that all may not be lost aboard the Martian rover that suddenly fell silent on Wednesday.

CNN's Miles O'Brien, our space correspondent extraordinaire, is at JPL in Pasadena with the latest -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, without too much further adieu, I think we should go into the briefing. We're going to let you know -- in just a few moments, we're going to hear what has happened with some repeated attempts to speak directly between ground controllers here at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena and the Spirit rover on the surface of Mars.

The Martian night for Spirit has just begun. And so during the daytime pass -- it is solar-powered after all -- they have been earnestly trying to speak to it.

And in some cases, they had some pretty good success: one 10- minute conversation and one 20-minute conversation. And during those conversations, Spirit responded to commands.

Let's listen to Pete Theisinger, the man in charge.

PETE THEISINGER, MARS PROJECT MANAGER: And we have gotten limited data in return. The flight software is not behaving normally. And I think I'd like to go into some details of the chronology of events that have happened since I talked to you yesterday.

When I left here yesterday there was -- the preliminary indication that a request for an acknowledgement sent to the spacecraft, at what would have been an emergency or fault command raid, was received and acknowledged from the spacecraft and that was correct. The spacecraft did see us yesterday.

We attempted to command the spacecraft to send us telemetry yesterday, and we were very late in the day, and on top of an UHF command session, and that command not work for what we believe were those reasons.

This morning, as we were preparing -- we had sent an early beep to the spacecraft, did not get a response. And as we were preparing to send a second, the spacecraft talked to us. We got very fractional frames. And then moved quickly to ask it to speak to us for 30 minutes at 120 bits per second. And we got 20 minutes of transmission and -- on that occasion, which was a single frame of engineering data repeated.

And then we repeated that whole sequence of events. And we got about 15 seconds of engineering data, where the frames were updated for the 15 minutes. And then for the second 15 minutes, we had nothing but fill data.

And then the spacecraft attempted a short communication window at the end of the day, which ended.

The spacecraft has been in a processor reset loop of some type, mostly since Wednesday, we believe. Where the processor wakes up, loads the flight software, uncovers a condition that would cause it to reset.

But the processor doesn't do that immediately. It waits for a period of time. At the beginning of the day, it waits for 15 minutes twice. And then for the rest of the day, it waits for an hour. And then it resets and comes back up.

The indications we have on two occasions is that the thing that causes the reset is not always perceived to be the same. OK? So we are -- we are confused by that. But that's the facts as we -- as we presume them to be right now.

We -- we know that the sequence which began on Wednesday morning to do some calibration of the mini test -- one of the mini test motors, that that sequence did not run to completion. And we know that the spacecraft believes it is now in -- in an X-band fault condition, which can be caused by a large number of things. But one of them could be the inability to move the high-gain antenna.

Now, if you recall, we did know as of 1 p.m. Mars time, on Wednesday that the spacecraft was -- did not believe itself to be in the fault condition, although it could be having problems. We know that, because we tried this beep at 31.125 that day and it worked. And that's not a rate we would expect if the spacecraft thought it was a fault condition.

So the team is basically taking the data it had this morning, has collected, and moving forward and analyzing the -- what they know, and preparing a plan of action for tomorrow and for the days following tomorrow.

We believe, based upon everything we know right now, that we can sustain the current state of the spacecraft from a health standpoint for a substantial, perhaps indefinite period of time. There is no indication that we have an imminent power problem, or a thermal issue.

There is indications that we have not been going to sleep at night like we expected, that we've been up for a lot or most of both nights, at least the spacecraft has been. And we're looking at what things can cause that to take place, OK? An anomaly team has been formed, completely separate from the Opportunity team. They will be working a schedule that will look like 500 Mars time -- going to confuse you again -- to about 1500 Mars time. So they're going to sync up with the Spirit's day. That means that tonight they'll be coming in about midnight, so you have a reference point.

The first part of that will be a kind of a reexamination of the data, whatever they've been able to collect and analyze in the period of time, and kind of the go-forward plan for the day. Then they'll be on consoles for the day and then they'll be post-day -- a couple-hour meetings of what they know and to work on theories.

O'BRIEN: We have been listening to Pete Theisinger, who is the mission manager here, project manager, for the Spirit rover. He's had a long Martian day, a night, for most of us, trying to trouble-shoot the problems on the Spirit rover.

Joining us to decipher some of the terminology there, which admittedly if you're a layperson, was probably a little difficult to handle, and try to walk us through what's happening from a layperson's perspective is Matt Golombek, who's one of the scientists here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who is instrumental in the landing sites here for Spirit, as well as Opportunity, which is due to arrive tomorrow night.

Matt, first of all, software problem, right?

MATT GOLOMBEK, NASA: It sounds like a software problem. And that's actually good news, because you can reboot it and clear it out and make sure, you know. But there may be some hardware problems. And that's of more concern and a little bit more difficult to ascertain at this moment.

O'BRIEN: It sounds like it is trying to reboot and running into a problem and that could indicate, perhaps, some problem with hardware.

GOLOMBEK: Yes, that's right. If it's simply software, the fix is fairly straightforward. You just simply reboot it, and you reinitialize the software, just as you would your own personal computer.

O'BRIEN: At this juncture, they haven't even tried that yet, because they were just trying to establish a dialogue.

GOLOMBEK: Yes. All this was, was sending up a message saying, send us the basic housekeeping engineering data. Tell us the state that you're in. And both of those worked perfectly on the low-gain antenna.

So that's actually very good news. That means all the hardware for the low low-gain antenna is functioning properly.

Now there may be something going on between the mini test and high gain; that's too soon to tell. That would be about the only hardware difficulty that would be...

O'BRIEN: And the mini test is a small spectrometer designed to look at the mineralogy and figure out what's in those rocks. The high gain antenna is the main antenna, which beams information directly back to earth. Something might have gone wrong there.

GOLOMBEK: Yes. And the interesting thing, it just so happens that the configuration the rover is sitting in has the high gain beaming through the PANCAM (ph) mast assembly, where the mini test is, to the Earth.

So there could be confusion in that regard, too. So there's a bunch of thing to sort of check. There's a real work around here. And I'm very optimistic.

O'BRIEN: You are?

GOLOMBEK: Yes. Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: Does it -- hearkening back to your days on the Pathfinder mission in '97, does this seem like the kind of situation you ran into, some communication problems?

GOLOMBEK: Communication problems are part of the business. When you're hundreds of millions of miles away, you can't go up there with a screwdriver. This is what it is. And this is sort of par for the course.

O'BRIEN: And one final thought here. He did indicate that there isn't a lot of urgency in dealing with this. In other words, whatever is happening can sort of stay that way, which is good for those of you focusing now on the Opportunity landing.

GOLOMBEK: That is the best news. We have a completely stable spacecraft. It's in no harm's way at all. There's nothing that's happening in it that will hurt it. We can just leave it until we figure out what the problem is.

As you know there is a stand-down of three sols on Spirit...

O'BRIEN: Martian days are sols.

GOLOMBEK: Yes. And the idea is you only have one team, and you want to focus all on landing and getting Opportunity down properly. So it's fine to just sort of leave it there, and slowly and deliberately figure out what the problem is and hopefully get it up and going.

O'BRIEN: Matt Golombek, thanks for walking us through that. A lot of technicalities. Hope we didn't confuse too many folks. But anybody who has a computer can relate to a software problem that gives you that terrible blue screen of death -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. Miles, we'll continue to check in with you throughout the next two hours.


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