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Mars Rover Opportunity Scans Huge Crater On Red Planet

By | October 2, 2006

      The Mars rover Opportunity has moved to the edge of a giant crater, NASA announced.

      Rovers Opportunity and Spirit, which only were supposed to work briefly after landing on the red planet, are still on the job, checking rocks, examining possible hints that water once graced the planet and searching for signs of life.

      For NASA, the dogged resilience of the rovers is a bit like buying a car and having it run trouble-free for a million miles.

      Opportunity has been exploring Mars since January 2004, more than 10 times longer than its original prime mission of three months.

      It has driven more than 9.2 kilometers (5.7 miles). Most of that was to get from Endurance Crater to the huge Victoria Crater, across a flat plain pocked with smaller craters and strewn with sand ripples. Frequent stops to examine intriguing rocks interrupted the journey, and one large sand ripple kept the rover trapped for more than five weeks.

      “We’re so proud of Opportunity, the rover that ‘takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin,'” said Cindy Oda, a Mars rover mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, Calif.

      “It continues to overcome all challenges despite its aging parts and difficult terrain. We are looking forward to exciting new discoveries as Opportunity begins its new adventure exploring Victoria Crater,” she said.

      Opportunity moved steadily over the rugged martian landscape to reach the rim of Victoria Crater in the Meridiani Planum region of the nearby planet. Opportunity reached the rim after a 26-meter (85-foot) drive during the rover’s 951st Martian day, or sol

      Opportunity now peers over the rim of a crater approximately five times wider than a previous stadium-sized one it studied for half a year.

      Initial images show rugged walls with layers of exposed rock and a floor blanketed with dunes. The far wall is approximately 800 meters (one-half mile) from the rover.

      “This is a geologist’s dream come true,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University at Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the NASA rovers.

      “Those layers of rock, if we can get to them, will tell us new stories about the environmental conditions long ago. We especially want to learn whether the wet era that we found recorded in the rocks closer to the landing site extended farther back in time. The way to find that out is to go deeper, and Victoria may let us do that.”

      Spirit, halfway around Mars and farther south from the planet’s equator, has been staying at one northward-tilted position through the southern Mars winter in order to collect the maximum energy supply for its solar panels.

      This second rover is conducting studies that benefit from staying in one place, such as monitoring effects of wind on dust. It will begin driving again when the Martian spring increases the amount of solar power available.

      Operations for both rovers will be minimized for much of October as Mars passes nearly behind the sun from Earth’s perspective, making radio communication more difficult than usual.

      JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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