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Mars Rover Update: Spirit Hunkers Down, Opportunity on the Move

Mars Rover Update: Spirit Hunkers Down, Opportunity on the Move
Opportunity Mars rover is wheeling across Meridiani Planum toward Victoria Crater � a feature that promises to be spectacular in view but also surrender data about the red planet�s past. Image (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Those"never say die" robots on Mars--NASA's Spirit and Opportunity--continue to chalkup science at their respective exploration sites.

Loominglarge for the Opportunity rover at Meridiani Planum is Victoria Crater--a grandbit of territory that's roughly half a mile (800 meters) in diameter. That'sabout six times wider than Endurance Crater, a feature that the roverpreviously surveyed for several months in 2004, gathering data on rock layers therethat were affected by water of long, long ago.

"Weare closing in ... we've got only about a kilometer to go now," said Steve Squyres,lead scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York for the dual Marsexploration rovers.

"Feelfree to work out your own guess at an estimated time of arrival based on ourrecent progress...but I'm not making any predictions! Mars has fooled us too manytimes before," Squyres told SPACE.com.

Lay of the land

Pushingacross Meridiani Planum has not been easy for Opportunity. The landscape is oneof rolling ripplesof sand and splashes of outcrop rock.

"We'repushing as hard as we can with a very old rover," Squyres added. "We'll getthere when and if we get there."

Once there, Squyressaid that the plan is to approach that feature much as they did EnduranceCrater.

"[We'll]start by taking images from several points along the rim to get the lay of theland...and then see if there's a place where we can enter the crater safely,"Squyres said. "There's no guarantee that we'll be able to get in, of course,but we're not driving all this way just for the view."

Rim shots

Alsoanxiously awaiting Opportunity's hoped for wheeling up to Victoria Crater isWilliam Farrand, a research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He is a member of the Mars Exploration Rover science team.

"Therover has been making good progress towards Victoria Crater. So--knock onwood--it should get there perhaps as early as late July," Farrand told SPACE.com."We will be getting just amazing images when we get to the rim of VictoriaCrater."

Farrandsaid the views at that feature are sure to be spectacular. But the real payoff,he added, is to check out the exposures of outcrop that the science team isexpecting to see on the inner walls of Victoria Crater. 

"Opportunity's mission has been all about reading the story contained within the layeredrocks that lie just below the surface of Meridiani Planum," Farrand advised."We got about 40 to 50 centimeters of outcrop at Eagle Crater [at the start ofits roving] and then 7 meters at Endurance Crater."

However,at Victoria, it looks like there's a deeper story there.

Imagestaken from Mars orbit suggest there might be something like 65 feet (20 meters)of outcrop exposed within the walls of Victoria Crater, Farrand stated.

Itis still not clear whether rover scientists will be able to get into the craterto do the type of detailed, on-the-spot analysis that they were able to do withinthe inner rim of Endurance Crater.

ButFarrand said that by utilizing Opportunity's Panoramic Camera and Mini-ThermalEmission Spectrometer, researchers should be able to do some tremendous remotesensing at that locale.

Spirit: making it through winter

Andon the other side of Mars within Gusev crater, sistership Spirit is devotedlyengaged in gathering science data too. It's in need of a little dental work,however.

Therobot's grinding teeth have worn away on its arm-mounted rock abrasion tool--butonly after exposing interiors of five time more rock targets than its designgoal of three rocks. The tool still has useful wire bristles for brushingtargets.

"Spirithas been very busy lately, taking an enormous panorama that we call the McMurdoPan," Squyres reported. The robot is doing lots of work with its robot arm--officiallylabeled, in mechanical jargon, as the Instrument Deployment Device, or IDD.

Spirithas been positioned in such a way that its solar panels can help the machineendure several months of Martian winter.

Thepower on Spirit is good, Squyres noted. Projections of the rover's overallhealth, he said, suggest the robot will make it through the martian winter andbe able to keep doing science the whole time.

"Onething about staying in one place for a long time is that it enables lots ofinteresting science that just isn't possible when you're always moving. We'retaking advantage of that now with Spirit," Squyres explained.

The "eyes" have it

BothSpirit and Opportunity are churning out travelogue-like photos of theirrespective treks over Mars. The eyes of the robots - their camera systems - arecapturing a wide range of scenery along the way.

"Allof the cameras continue to work remarkably well and are continuing to acquirebeautiful images," said astronomer Jim Bell, the Panoramic camera (Pancam) payloadelement lead for the Mars exploration rovers at Cornell University. "They haveproven to be extremely robust to the extreme conditions on the martian surface...largetemperature swings, fine dust everywhere, large cosmic ray flux," he told SPACE.com.

Sincethe twin rovers independently landed on Mars in January 2004, Spirit's camerashave taken about 82,000 pictures. Opportunity has taken about 71,500 pictures -for a total down-linked image data volume of about 19 gigabytes. Of these,54,400 and 49,500 are the high-resolution Pancam images, respectively, Bell said.

"AtMeridiani, once we get to Victoria Crater in June or July we are obviouslylooking forward to remarkable views of the interior," Bell said, and to help identifypossible routes to explore even deeper exposures of sedimentary outcrop rocks.

"AtGusev, we are hunkered down for the winter now, obtaining detailed chemicalmeasurements on reachable rocks and soils and acquiring the gigantic 360?McMurdo panorama with little or no compression in all [camera] filters from ourwinter haven parking spot," Bell said.

Upthere on Mars, Bell concluded, "the missions just keep rocking on!"

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