Invaders from Earth

Oct 6, 2006 4:54pm

“NASA is in the process of taking over Mars,” said Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which have been exploring the Martian surface for more than two years.  “Today is day 960 of Opportunity’s 90-day mission,” he said at a Washington news conference.  The rovers have gone far beyond their expected lifetimes, and NASA has had to come up with money to keep funding their support team on Earth. Now the rovers have been joined by a new ship, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is circling the planet at an altitude of 170 miles and sending back its first images.  Look at this one: Now look at a tiny detail–the little dot in the right-center of the picture above.  That’s the Opportunity rover, perched on the edge of a crater.  It’s about the size of a small car.  Do you see the dark line extending to the bottom right from it?  NASA says that’s the shadow of the mast on Opportunity’s top deck that carries most of its cameras. Opportunity has been exploring a vast, sandy plain on Mars, and its operators back on Earth say they’re amazed it’s still operating.  It’s gotten stuck in the sand twice; one time they had to spin the wheels for six weeks to get it free.  There is no way to tow it free; Mars is currently about 240 million miles away from Earth. The crater at which Opportunity has now arrived is called Victoria.  It is about a mile wide, and Squyres says it’s a great chance to see beneath the upper layers of soil.  Opportunity will now probe the cliffs that surround Victoria crater.  But after 960 days on Mars, it is showing clear signs of wear.  One of its wheels won’t turn, and its batteries are harder to charge. “We are not going to do a leisurely tour of this crater,” said Squyres, “because our days are numbered.” We’ve assembled a slide show of the new images, and posted it HERE.

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