The plucky Mars rover Spirit has a whole team of NASA engineers on Earth trying to find an escape route out of the Martian sand dune that has snared the robot for weeks, and now it has a Web site.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., launched the Web site "Free Spirit" (Free Spirit - jpl.nasa.gov) this week to chronicle the space agency's efforts to rescue Spirit from its sandy Martian prison. It comes complete with a dramatic logo.

"People really like the whole 'free Spirit,' idea and we thought we should make it really easy for people to find updates," said Veronica McGregor, a NASA spokesperson at JPL. "In a way, we're trying to make it a campaign that everyone can get involved in."

The seed for NASA's Free Spirit site was planted in comments and inquiries McGregor received on the agency's Mars rover Twitter page, she told SPACE.com. The new site joins several older NASA Web pages dedicated to the long-lived Mars rover mission, but is the first solely reserved for Spirit's sand trap problem.

Stuck fast on Mars

Spirit has been stuck since May 6, when it slipped up to its wheel hubs into deep Martian sand. Snapshots of Spirit's undercarriage revealed a rock that may be touching the rover, but NASA engineers believe it loose and not bearing any of the robot's weight.

"This is a very tough situation and we're not sure we can get Spirit out," McGregor said.

But the outpouring of support for Spirit has been immense, with the public sending in suggestions and encouragement via NASA's social networking channels and regular written mail, she added.

At JPL, engineers have concocted a flour-like mix of soft, fluffy material made of diatomaceous earth and Lincoln 60 fire clay, which were available at their local Home Depot store.

The mock Martian dirt mix is designed to mimic the wheel-caking properties of the actual Mars sand plaguing Spirit. It is being poured into a sandbox, where an Earth-based test rover will be forced to get stuck so engineers can find a way to get it - and by extension Spirit - out of their respective traps.

"They're mixing it up and starting to shovel it in," McGregor said. "'Marscaping' is what I like to call it."

A similar technique was used to rescue Spirit's twin Opportunity when it bogged down in a dune on the other side of Mars in 2005.

But back then, social networking Web sites like Twitter weren't around, McGregor said. "Opportunity was in the same situation in 2005 and very few people knew about it," she added.

Opportunity was only stuck for five weeks. Spirit is just over a week shy of the two-month mark mired in sand. On Free Spirit, NASA is posting new images and video updates on Spirit's progress, or lack of it, as it unfolds. New photographs posted Friday showed engineers stirring up their mock Mars dirt and other Marscaping ingredients.

Stationary science

While Spirit remains immobilized, it has kicked up some interesting terrain and is studying its surroundings using cameras and other high-tech sensors. Rover scientists have dubbed Spirit's sand trap "Troy," and discovered distinct layers of tan, yellow, white and dark-red sandy dirt which researchers are working to explain.

A recent dust storm has even cleaned the Martian dust coating Spirit's deck-mounted solar panels, boosting the amount of power available to keep the rover alive.

Spirit and Opportunity have been roving across their respective landing sites on Mars since 2004. They had launched a year earlier on an initial 90-day mission, but NASA has since extended the expedition several times over due to their unexpectedly long life. The mission, McGregor said, has won a strong following among the public.

"I think part of it is just the fact that they're on the planet and rolling around," she said. "And the other part is that they've lasted so much longer than anyone has expected."


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http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/freespirit/
NASA's "Free Spirit" Web site: