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Science File

Mars Rovers Gearing Up for Long Summer Drives

March 27, 2004|From Associated Press

Scientists working on NASA's twin rover mission to Mars said Friday they were settling in for the long haul, as they prepare to dispatch the six-wheeled robots on treks that could stretch into the late summer.

Beginning Monday, members working on the Spirit half of the $820-million double mission will leave Mars time behind and revert to more Earthlike schedules. Those assigned to the second rover, Opportunity, will switch back to Mars time on April 5.

Since days on Mars last nearly 40 minutes longer than they do on Earth, members of the mission have had to adjust their schedules accordingly to stay synchronized with the Red Planet. After nearly three months, fatigue is beginning to take its toll, mission members said.

"That will ease some of the pain on our hard-working team," mission manager Matt Wallace said at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Both identical rovers are on the verge of embarking on extended drives at their respective landing sites on opposite sides of the planet.

Within days, Spirit should strike out toward the Columbia Hills outcroppings that lie an estimated 1.4 miles east of the rim of a large crater that it has spent two weeks exploring. The drive should take from 60 to 90 days to complete, said deputy principal investigator Ray Arvidson of Washington University.

Opportunity soon should roll off toward a comparatively less distant target of its own to explore, this one a large crater called Endurance that lies 2,300 feet away.

Scientists think that crater may contain more of the sedimentary deposits that Opportunity spent nearly two months analyzing in Eagle Crater, the much smaller depression that the rover rolled into on landing.

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