Earthlings Invade Mars

Oct. 6, 2006 — -- "NASA is in the process of taking over Mars," said Steven Squyres, the principal investigator for the two rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have been exploring the Martian surface for more than two years.

"Today is day 960 of Opportunity's 90-day mission," he said today 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 its 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. They are so detailed that in one, the Opportunity rover appears as a small, dark triangle, perched on the edge of a crater.

A dark line extends from the triangle. Scientists said it is the shadow of the mast on Opportunity's top deck that carries most of its cameras.

Sandy Desert in the Martian Cold

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 from Earth.

The crater at which Opportunity has now arrived is called Victoria. It is about a mile wide, and Squyres said it offers a great chance to see beneath the upper layers of soil.

"What an amazing time for space exploration," said Jim Bell, Squyres' long-time partner on the rover project. Bell and Squyres, both scientists at Cornell University, first proposed the Mars rovers in 1987.

Opportunity will now probe the cliffs that surround Victoria crater. But after 960 days on Mars, it is showing 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, because our days are numbered," Squyres said.

Please take a look at the newest pictures HERE.

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