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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Update: Mars Rovers approaching five years of service, still kicking

By Rick C. Hodgin

Pasadena (CA) - The two Mars rovers operating right now on the surface of Mars, Spirit and Opportunity, will turn five the 3rd and 24th respectively. Their original 90-days of service has been surpassed by more than 20x as both rovers still carry out missions even today on the red planet - weather permitting, of course.

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Artist's rendition of the rover Spirit on surface of Mars. The rovers are nearly as tall as an average person and send back stereoscopic images (two cameras) which present images as our eyes would see them. View the slideshow (link below) for some truly amazing images from Spirt and the other rover, Opportunity. Credit: NASA.


Together, the rovers have sent back over 250,000 images, travelled more than 13 miles, climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with Martian sand traps and aging and failing equipment. They survived dust storms and sent back more than 36 GB of data via the Mars Odyssey craft permanently in orbit around Mars.

Spirit and Opportunity's energy levels are falling year after year due to an accumulation of dust on the craft's solar panels, along with slowly deteriorating batteries. Said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and Opportunity, "This last winter was a squeaker for Spirit. We just made it through." Spirit was barely able to gather enough solar energy each day to maintain internal heat levels each night to keep delicate instruments and circuits from damage due to extreme cold (it gets well below -100 degrees F on Mars).

New missions are scheduled for Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit will first drive about 200 yards and south of a location observed in 2006 called "Home Plate." It is a plateau and may yield support information about what is believed to be a remnant of explosive volcanic material. Later it will head for a house-sized pit called Goddard.

Opportunity is already off to a place called "Endeavour Crater." It's approximately 14 miles in diameter and more than 20x larger than another crater called Victoria where Opportunity has spent most of the last two years. Opportunity's total journey will be seven miles (as the crow flies) to get there, though it will actually be much longer as the Rover must avoid many obstacles.

Opportunity is already more than one mile along on its journey, and has taken several high resolution images of interesting formations along the way. [When I think about Spirit and Opportunity, I cannot help but get an image of Wall-e in my mind, especially with the image above. If only there were more rovers on Mars that Spirit could get replacement parts from.]

The service Spirit and Opportunity have given mankind exceeded everybody's expectations, both inside and outside of NASA. The information they continue to send back takes our imaginations to flight, soaring with possible future manned missions to Mars and setting first foot on another world. That would be something.

Original here

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