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It's crunch time for Mars rovers

As published on

It's crunch time for Mars rovers
NASA hopes to beat the odds with Saturday's airbag-cushioned landing
By Dan Whitcomb

Updated: 4:35 p.m. ET Jan. 01, 2004

LOS ANGELES - If the first of two spacecraft bounces onto the surface of Mars on Saturday and unfolds itself into a rock-inspecting rover, NASA scientists hope to begin writing the latest chapter in man's long search for life on the Red Planet.

But as both U.S. space scientists and their European colleagues can attest, nothing is ever easy when attempting to explore the rugged Martian landscape.

The European Space Agency is still desperately searching for the British-made, $375 million Beagle 2 a probe no bigger than an open umbrella that was supposed to parachute onto Mars on Christmas Day but never sent a signal to confirm the landing.

NASA is also still smarting from the loss of the Mars Polar Lander and its two microprobes, which vanished in 1999 just three months after a similar fate suffered by the Mars Climate Orbiter.

In all, NASA says, more than half of all missions to Mars have met with disaster.

"The risk is real, but so is the potential reward of using these advanced rovers to improve our understanding of how planets work," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for space science at NASA.

Changes made
This time, NASA officials say, they have gone to great lengths in a bid to get the two golf-cart sized rovers -- nicknamed Spirit and Opportunity -- safely onto the surface of the planet.

Mars rover at work
Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars rovers' science payload, narrates an animation showing how the instruments work.

"We have done everything we know that could be humanly done to ensure success," said Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the Mars Exploration Rover mission. "We have conducted more testing and external reviews for the Mars Exploration Rovers than for any previous interplanetary mission."

In order to ensure a happy landing, the rovers which were launched in June and July have been traveling through space tucked inside a folded-up lander, which is wrapped in deflated airbags inside a protective shell.

As each lander drifts toward the surface of Mars by parachute, it will jettison that shell and inflate the airbags, allowing the craft to bounce safely across the bleak landscape for more than half a mile (1 kilometer) before coming to a stop.

The lander will then spring open, and the rover will spend about a week unfolding itself before beginning scanning its surroundings for a safe direction of travel.

Spirit is expected to land at 11:35 p.m. ET Saturday, with Opportunity following three weeks later.

Traces of water and life
Live Vote
There are many strategies in the search for extraterrestrial life. Which do you think could be the most fruitful? * 73090 responses

Looking for traces of ancient life on Mars.

Exploring the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Listening for faraway radio signals.

Investigating distant Earthlike planets.

None of the above.

Not a scientifically valid survey. Click to learn more.

If all goes as planned, the little robots, which are crammed with cameras and a suite of scientific instruments designed to study the geologic record of Mars, may bring mankind one step closer to learning whether life existed -- or still exists, in some form -- on the planet.

Among the assignments laid out by project managers for the rovers will be to search for rocks and soils that could offer clues to past water activity, to investigate landing sites with a high probability of containing evidence of liquid water and to determine if those environments could have sustained life.

"Think of Spirit and Opportunity as robotic field geologists," said Cornell University's Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the science instruments on board. Squyres said the machines were designed to search out and find the best rocks for study.

"When they get to one they reach out with a robotic arm that has a handful of tools, a microscope, two instruments for identifying what the rock is made of and a grinder for getting to a fresh, unweathered surface inside the rock," he said.

Posted by Mark at January 2, 2004 12:52 PM | TrackBack

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