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NASA’s Mars rovers exceed all expectations

April 6, 2005

With the approval of an additional 18 months of funding, NASA’s twin Mars rovers, the Spirit and Opportunity, will continue their exploration of “fantastic” landscapes for an additional 14 months.

“The rovers have proven their value with major discoveries about ancient watery environments on Mars that might have harbored life,” said Dr. Ghassem Asrar, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “We are extending their mission through September 2006 to take advantage of having such capable resources still healthy and in excellent position to continue their adventures.”

With 11 months of extensions exceeding their successful three-month prime missions, “We now have to make long-term plans for the vehicles because they may be around for quite a while,” said Jim Erickson, rover project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Scientists are within a few football field’s distance of a region called “Etched Terrain,” with rocks exposed by actual wind erosion rather than craters. There are rocks different from others in any other time in Mars’ history. “This is a journey into the unknown, to something completely new,” said Dr. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and principal investigator for the rover’s science instruments.

The rover Opportunity has overtaken Spirit in total distance driven. It has been pushed by rover planners to roll more than three miles—eight times the original goal.

On March 20, a new Martian record of 722 feet in a single 24-hour drive was accomplished by Opportunity. Even Spirit is exceeding expectations although it is in much rougher terrain, climbing a rocky slope toward an area called “Husband Hill.”

The rovers have shown signs of wear and tear. Spirit’s rock abrasion tool grinding teeth might be nearly useless after exposing the interior of five times more rocks than its original design goal of only three rocks.

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