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Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NEWS RELEASE: 2008-243 December 29, 2008
Mars Rovers Near Five Years of Science and Discovery
Of the hundreds of engineers and scientists who cheered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
"The American taxpayer was told three months for each rover was the prime mission plan," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in
The rovers have made important discoveries about wet and violent environments on ancient Mars. They also have returned a quarter-million images, driven more than 21 kilometers (13 miles), climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with sand traps and aging hardware, survived dust storms, and relayed more than 36 gigabytes of data via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To date, the rovers remain operational for new campaigns the team has planned for them.
"These rovers are incredibly resilient considering the extreme environment the hardware experiences every day," said John Callas, JPL project manager for Spirit and
Occasional cleaning of dust from the rovers' solar panels by Martian wind has provided unanticipated aid to the vehicles' longevity. However, it is unreliable aid. Spirit has not had a good cleaning for more than 18 months. Dust-coated solar panels barely provided enough power for Spirit to survive its third southern-hemisphere winter, which ended in December.
"This last winter was a squeaker for Spirit," Callas said. "We just made it through."
With Spirit's energy rising for spring and summer, the team plans to drive the rover to a pair of destinations about 183 meters (200 yards) south of the site where Spirit spent most of 2008. One is a mound that might yield support for an interpretation that a plateau Spirit has studied since 2006, called Home Plate, is a remnant of a once more-extensive sheet of explosive volcanic material. The other destination is a house-size pit called Goddard.
"Goddard doesn't look like an impact crater," said Steve Squyres of
A light-toned ring around the inside of the pit might add information about a nearby patch of bright, silica-rich soil that Squyres counts as Spirit's most important discovery so far. Spirit churned up the silica in mid-2007 with an immobile wheel that the rover has dragged like an anchor since it quit working in 2006. The silica was likely produced in an environment of
Since climbing out of
"We keep setting the bar higher for what these rovers can do," said Frank Hartman, a JPL rover driver. "Once it seemed like a crazy idea to go to Endeavour, but now we're doing it."
Squyres said, "The journeys have been motivated by science, but have led to something else important. This has turned into humanity's first overland expedition on another planet. When people look back on this period of Mars exploration decades from now, Spirit and
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology,