September 22, 2004 11:01 AM PDT

Mars rovers roll on with new funding

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NASA has agreed to fund the Mars rover project for six more months, allowing two robotic vehicles to continue to study the red planet.

Following an earlier extension, funding for the project was supposed to end Sept. 13, but on Tuesday NASA announced it would continue providing money so scientists could work with Spirit and Opportunity, the two robots driving around the surface of Mars.

The two robots have performed well-beyond the expected term of the project and likely will give a shot in the arm to the growing robotics industry. The project was originally expected to terminate in April after three months, but because the robots continued to function, NASA extended the project. Earlier this month, the rovers endured the climax of the Martian winter and lost contact with Earth for 12 days, but contact was recently recovered.

So far, the two vehicles have traveled more than 3.2 kilometers and dug up mineral evidence that supports the theory that water once existed on the planet.

Scientists, however, said some fatigue has begun to set in. If the robots fail, NASA will pull the plug on funds.

"Although Spirit and Opportunity are well past warranty, they are showing few signs of wearing out," said a statement from Jim Erickson, project manager for both rovers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We really don't know how long they will keep working, whether days or months. We will do our best to continue getting the maximum possible benefit from these great national resources."

NASA, however, will cut back on some operations to cut costs. Scientists will monitor the daily movements of the rovers five days a week, as opposed to seven. University researchers working on the project will also spend less time at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., and communicate from their ordinary place of work by teleconference.

 

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