Red Planet Rovers: Still Stalking Science
Hitting on bedrock. Spirit Mars rover has wheeled up to an exciting outcrop on the red planet in its exploration of Gusev Crater.
DALLAS, Texas Those peppy Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, continue to make tracks as they wheel about two diverse locales on Mars far outstripping their original warranties of 90 days of lifetime and a target of roughly 2,000 feet (600 meters) of driving range when they landed on the planet in January 2004.
of the mechanized emissaries from Earth remain hard at work, said Steven Squyres, principal investigator for the NASA Mars
Exploration Rover Project and astronomer at
Squyres and other experts discussed past, present and future Mars exploration plans here during the National Space Society's (NSS) 26th annual International Space Development Conference (ISDC).
After 1,200 sols a "sol" is one solar day on Mars?Spirit is now surveying a site called "Home Plate," a plateau within Gusev Crater. The robot recently wheeled itself into a remarkable discovery, Squyres reported.
Due to an out-of-commission right front wheel that no longer turns, Spirit is driving backwards dragging that mechanical appendage.
"That's rough ? it's a tough way to drive," Squyres explained. "But what we have discovered is that as you drive it, it digs a wonderful trench as you move along and sometimes interesting things will pop up in that trench."
That was the case a few weeks ago as Spirit investigated a self-dug trench that exposed bright white soil. Utilizing a rover-toted spectrometer, scientists found that the uncovered material was 90 percent pure silica.
scientists have dubbed the little trench '
"This is the kind of stuff that you need to have water to make that kind of concentration of silica," Squyres said.
created that pure silica concentration has spurred thought about volcanic fumerals and
Indeed, Spirit is presently investigating a rock outcrop, "one of the most beautiful outcrops I have ever laid eyes on," Squyres said.
Furthermore, the rover is engaged in an experiment that combines the overhead imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with Spirit's on-the-surface set of cameras.
The idea is to try and simultaneously catch dust devils in their whirlwind act from two different angles, Squyres noted.
Deep driving into Victoria Crater
to be outdone, the
That robot is studying the "geologic promised land" of Victoria Crater, Squyres explained, a large impact feature some 2,600 feet (800 meters) in diameter and 300 feet (70 meters) deep. "It's just a geologic history book."
has completed a partial traverse around
adventure continues and we hope to travel to
Squyres told ISDC attendees that, in looking into
the future, he takes some comfort in the fact that the same agency, NASA, that
placed the first humans on the Moon nearly 40 years ago also put Spirit and
Mars is slated to be on the receiving end of another Earth-launched probe next year.
NASA's Phoenix Mars lander is being prepped for an early August liftoff, followed by a cruise through interplanetary space and an alighting on the Red Planet in May 2008.
the truth of Mars ? that's what we're after," said Peter Smith,
said his goal with
piece of hardware onboard
Moreover, once on the surface of Mars, the device could hear the robotic arm plowing into the icy landscape. In doing so, it would add that "extra sense to the touch-and-feel aspects" of the mission, Smith observed.
Smith said that both Mars orbiters and landers will further a deeper understanding of that distant world.
"There are definitely caves on Mars," Smith said. But that raises a key question, he added: Could there be fractures inside those caves that come up from deep underground?
"Maybe water vapor is trapped into the cave and you have the kind of environment where, perhaps, biology could exist," Smith said. This is certainly seen on the Earth, he continued, and many caves on our planet even those that are sealed from the atmosphere and receive no sunlight are stocked with forms of life.
armada of prior Mars missions have narrowed down how best to search for life on
the Red Planet, said Donna Shirley, president of Managing
Creativity and based in
NASA's ongoing Mars Exploration Program strategy is founded upon the build-up of knowledge from successive missions to the planet, Shirley said.
Shirley also spotlighted that understanding Mars' past how it changed and why may well provide clues as to Earth's own future.
"I think the driving force for people exploring Mars," Shirley pointed out, "is going to be the question, can we expand to other planets? Are there places to live? Can we actually live there? Can we afford to go to Mars and live there for a reasonable amount of money?"
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