December 5, 2005 4:05 PM PST

Mars rovers showing signs of age

SAN FRANCISCO--The Mars rovers continue to chug along, but how long they will last is anyone's guess.

Spirit and Opportunity, the two robotic vehicles roving the red planet, have lasted more than 22 months, far longer than anyone anticipated, said scientists and program managers from the Mars rover program speaking at the American Geophysical Union, an annual conference of earth scientists taking place here this week.

Nonetheless, signs of fatigue are beginning to show. Around 10 days ago, the mechanical arm on Opportunity stopped moving. The problem, the rover teams believe, lies with the shoulder joint of the arm. If they can get the elbow of the arm out of the T-shaped housing where the arm rests, the arm can still collect samples.

"If it has failed, it will be a significant hit. It is the contact arm of the mission," said John Callas, deputy project manager for the NASA Mars Exploration Rovers project.

One of the steering actuators has also blown on Opportunity, but it can still be driven.

Spirit, which has roamed Mars for 684 days, is faring better, Callas said. The only complication right now is with the rock abrasion tool. It has worn out. Made to only take three samples, Spirit has conducted 15 rock scrapings.

Other components, however, could blow. The mission was supposed to last only 90 days, and most of the components were stress-tested for a lifetime of 270 days. With temperatures that can swing 100 degrees Celsius in a day, Mars is a tough environment for electrical components.

"We drive it every day as if there were no tomorrow," said Stephen Squyres, a Cornell University professor and the principal investigator on the rover project.

Squyres, though, added that the two vehicles have brought a wealth of information about the planet back to Earth. A climb up the Columbia Hills on Mars, for instance, has revealed an astounding variety of rocks in a small area.

"There are nine completely distinct rock types. There is a bewildering diversity," he said. In part, that's because the Martian geology was formed through meteor impacts, rather than volcanic eruptions.

Jim Bell, lead scientist for the panoramic cameras on the rover, added that the vehicles allowed scientists to take nighttime observations as well. Bell and his team have captured images of an eclipse on Mars (where the Martian moon Phobos gets obscured by the shadow of the planet) and what appears to be a meteor shower.

So far, Spirit has traveled 5.5 kilometers, while Opportunity has gone 6.5 kilometers. Together they've captured 130,000 images.

Mars, the wet planet?
Other scientists at the conference, meanwhile, asserted that the clay in Martian soil and other geological and seismic evidence points to the existence, at least sporadically, of water on Mars.

Mars likely had large bodies of water on its surface 3.5 billion years ago, but climatic changes dried up the vast majority of it, said Gerhard Neukum at the Free University in Berlin.

"Mars lost most of its atmosphere and, with it, its water," he said. Since then, "it (water) has been limited to certain periods of time, and it was local," he added.

Around 2.6 billion years ago, for instance, a volcanic explosion created a lava flow. It caused part of a glacier to melt, thereby freeing up water. The glacier, however, eventually won that contest and formed a structure called the Enigmatic Ridge, a long, straight line across the Martian surface. It was so called because scientists in the early 1970s studying the structure couldn't figure out how it got formed.

Neukum, however, said that Mars still likely has pockets of water. "We see the signature of water ice even on Olympus Mons (a humongous mountain on Mars) now," he said.

Mean-Pierre Bibring, principal investigator on the OMEGA project, which is conducting seismic studies of Mars, said that he has obtained some indications of subsurface water. The evidence is not convincing yet, but the study has just begun. More evidence will come this spring.

Bibring further added that the red color on Mars, the result of iron oxidation (rust), was not likely caused by water. It resulted from a reaction with the atmosphere.

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15 comments

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Use them until the wheels fall off,
what has NASA got to lose.
Posted by bobby_brady (765 comments )
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Opportunity cost
of the team being focused on the Mars mission instead of other things...
Posted by npxzbebq (78 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Now.....how does this benefit us?
All of this is very nice, but how (exactly) does this benefit human beings on earth?

Does it feed a hungry child? Did it stop a starving child from dying last night or give medicine to and aids patient?

While the novelty and keen science required to attain this goal is not lost on me, I just wonder how much we could have accompliched HERE if those same brilliant minds and funds were brought to bear on global problems like global warming, starvation and disease.
Posted by Jim Hubbard (326 comments )
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why stop there?
What could we do in the US with the 4 billion spent over in iraq, I bet that could feed a few hungry people.
Posted by dingleberry420 (21 comments )
Link Flag
How does...
...art feed a hungry child? How does the Internet? How does anything not directly related to growing food?

People need more than mere food to live. They need things to admire and aspire to. They need things to stimulate their imaginations and get them to ask "What if..?". They need things to make them cry and make them cheer and make them proud.

Otherwise we'd still be a bunch of hunter/gatherers living on the plains of Africa.
Posted by WDS2 (183 comments )
Link Flag
That's not the point
I also agree that there are many things in this world that need to be fix, but that doesn't mean there are other fields that needs to evolved.

Take sports for instance, there's a lot of money in sports, namely NFL, MLB, World Soccer, etc. and that doesn't mean it has to go until every person of the world has food and cloths.

Our modern society needs a lot of different things: culture, science, entertainment, health, etc. The problem is that there has to be a balanced "world ecosystem" to grow as a just society. There's no point in blaming one field for the lack of attention on others.
Posted by (4 comments )
Link Flag
In the late 1400's, most folks couldn't
understand how funding for three ships to sail off the edge of the world could possibly benefit mankind!
Posted by bjbrock (98 comments )
Link Flag
Benefits are many
I am old enough to remember people asking the same thing
about landing on the moon. The cynics pointed out that it was a
p*ssing contest (as someone else has said), part of the arms
race. At least we (Western Hemisphere, I am not American),
spent some money on other things apart from explosives to win
the propaganda war.

As a consequence people became inspired to do great things.
"Space Age" was the definition of the ultimate quality and
technology, and was often invoked in the course of medical or
even agricultural breakthroughs.

America at that time reached its pinnacle of international
inspiration.

"If we can put a Man on the Moon, then why can't we . . . " was a
common expression. And we realised that indeed we could do
anything!

And the spin-offs were substantial, though not immediately
apparent. If it were not for the bold new attitudes of that era, we
would not be having this discussion now! Personal Computers
and the Internet were not even science-fiction fantasy then, now
they provide a platform for social and science discourse, ideas
are enlightened and cancers are being cured every day. All
people are being informed and educated to a depth that could
not have been imagined by fantasists a generation ago.

One of the realisations has been to understand the global
environment, observing and measuring environmental issues.
The damage to the Ozone layer could not have been understood
without the space race, and it is now being reversed based on
that source of evidence.

We need to care for every dying child. We also need to live our
lives without depression or avoiding responsibility, without joy
and pride there will be nothing. If there is anything more
uplifting than reaching for the stars, I would like to hear of it.
Posted by omellar (9 comments )
Link Flag
Sick of whiners.
You can start with yourself.
How many starving people did you feed today? Yesterday? Tomorrow?
Maybe you should get on a plane - which is technology you probably would have questioned or are still questioning the use of - and go help these 'people'. Do you even know who (exactly) is starving and dying? Do you have a name a telephone number or an address? Do you think , gee their smart or gee they have money they should do something. If you are so concerned then you should do something. Simple as that. By the way, didn't Bush give Bono some money for AIDS in Africa??

EOL
Posted by StopThinking4Me (1 comment )
Link Flag
Look at history for your answer
The space industry has spawned thousands of products that improve everyday lives all over the world. Many things needed to get men to such hostile places also solve problems here on earth, the money spent on the space race was some of the best money ever spent by our government.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Link Flag
Pissing contest
The whole point of Bush's plan to land on Mars is this: if China lands on the moon, we have to land on Mars to win the pissing contest. That's the real reason why we went to the moon in the first place right? It was a ****** contest with the Russians.
Posted by maxhodges (4 comments )
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Yeah but...
After we won the Moon Race the Soviet Union crashed and burned!
Posted by Xpheyel (32 comments )
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Marvelous acheivement these Eveready Bunnies!
Well Done.
Posted by technewsjunkie (1265 comments )
Reply Link Flag
go rover!
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.analogstereo.com/mercury_mountaineer_owners_manual.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.analogstereo.com/mercury_mountaineer_owners_manual.htm</a>
Posted by 208774626618253979477959487856 (176 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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