Looks like heavy traffic over the holidays on Mars. Like jet trails in the sky, the Mars dust looks like it holds the memories of many vehicles running through it. As the jet trails evaporate in the atmosphere, so will the Rover trails in the dust as the wind eventually fills them up with new dust.

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Both Spirit and Opportunity are nearing milestones. Spirit landed on Mars on January 3, 2004, with Opportunity landing 21 days later. If I recall correctly, the originally mission was hoped to last 90 days. Both have lasted about 20 times longer.

Guess what? They’re still working. My car can’t go six months without something going wrong with it and me taking it into the shop. I predict in the future we will all be driving Rovers on Earth. Better than golf carts, surely; great mileage and no maintenance.

The Martian wind has helped clear the dust from the rovers solar panels that collect sunlight and convert it into energy. These puppies don’t have antifreeze either. My car battery would have died in this cold long, long ago.

Admittedly, Spirit just barely survived this Martian winter. Still, both seem to be in good condition for the foreseeable future, which is simply marvelous.

Plans call for Spirit to check out “Home Plate”, an area of explosive volcanic material that scientists are eager to look over. Opportunity will head to Endeavour Crater.

Remember the excellent Inspector Morse tv series and the wonderful books written by Colin Dexter? Everyone just called him ‘Morse’. Not revealed until one of the last episodes was his first name – Endeavour.

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The Mars rover Opportunity is making its way back out to the Martian plains nearly a year after descending into a large Martian crater, Victoria, to examine exposed ancient rock layers.

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“We’ve done everything we entered Victoria Crater to do and more,” said Bruce Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California who is project scientist for Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit.

Opportunity is now preparing to look at loose cobble rock on the plains which are approximately fist-size and larger, which were thrown long distances when objects hitting Mars blew deep craters into the planet; even deeper than the recently explored Victoria crater.

“Our experience tells us there’s lots of diversity among the cobbles,” said Scott McLennan of the State University of New York, Stony Brook. McLennan is a long-term planning leader for the rover science team. “We want to get a better characterization of them. A statistical sampling from examining more of them will be important for understanding the geology of the area.”

Opportunity entered Victoria Crater on Sept. 11, 2007, after a year of exploring from the rim. Once a drivable inner slope was identified, Opportunity used contact instruments on its robotic arm to inspect the composition and textures of accessible layers, then drove close to the base of a cliff called “Cape Verde,” part of the crater rim, to capture detailed images of a stack of layers 20 feet tall. The information Opportunity has returned about the layers in Victoria suggest the sediments were deposited by wind and affected by groundwater.

“The patterns broadly resemble what we saw at the smaller craters Opportunity explored earlier,” McLennan said. “By looking deeper into the layering, we are looking farther back in time.” At approximately a half mile in diameter, it is the deepest seen by Opportunity.

Engineers are programming Opportunity to climb out of the crater at where it entered. A spike in electric current drawn by the rover’s left front wheel last month settled debate about whether to keep trying to get closer to the base of Cape Verde on the steep slope. The spike resembled one seen on Spirit when that rover lost the use of its right front wheel in 2006. Opportunity’s six wheels are all still working after 10 times more use than they were designed to perform, but the team took the spike in current as a reminder of the pitfalls involved. Yet, unbelievably, the rover is still working well.

“If Opportunity were driving with only five wheels, like Spirit, it probably would never get out of Victoria Crater,” said JPL’s Bill Nelson, a rover mission manager. “We also know from experience with Spirit that if Opportunity were to lose the use of a wheel after it is out on the level ground, mobility should not be a problem.”

Opportunity drives with its robotic arm out of the stowed position because a shoulder motor has degraded over the years to the point where the rover team didn’t want to risk having it stop working while the arm is stowed on a hook. If the motor were to stop working with the arm unstowed, the arm would remain usable; not a good thing.

“Both rovers show signs of aging, but they are both still capable of exciting exploration and scientific discovery,” said JPL’s John Callas, project manager for Spirit and Opportunity.

NASA says today that there are no plans to turn off or hibernate either of the two Mars Rovers because of budget cuts. I reported these cuts yesterday when I first heard of them.

NASA has apparently rescinded a letter recommending cuts in the Mars Rover program in order to offset $4 million in proposed budget reductions. The budget reductions were to offset cost overruns in the program developing the next Mars rover mission.

Yesterday, scientists in the Rover program said they would have to hibernate one, probably the Spirit rover, and reduce the operation of the second rover, Opportunity, to limited duty.

Today however, NASA’s statement says that neither rover will be shut down. I think this is a good reconsideration on their part. These rovers still have much exploring and scientific investigation to accomplish. And the price is relatively cheap. Hurray!

Either Spirit or Opportunity, two rovers now conducting missions on Mars may have to be put to sleep due to NASA budget cuts.Rover arm NASA has ordered $4 million to be trimmed from the program’s budget.

Part of the budget woes stem from cost overruns of the next rover mission planned for 2009, which entails a rover the size of a hummer – and we know how much a Hummer costs.

The rovers currently cost $20 million per year to operate. Spirit likely will be put into hibernation sometime in the next few weeks. Let’s hope they’re not using the Windows operating system for the rovers. Whenever I put my computer into standby, I can’t get it to wake up about 10% of the time and have to do a full reboot. You might notice from my tone, I don’t like this news.

I would suggest delaying the mission scheduled for 2009 by slowing it down, stretching it out, or; here’s an idea that came out of the blue; put it into hibernation for a while. These current rovers are still successfully exploring Mars, gathering valuable data, and testing how long they can survive in the harsh Martian environment.

The funds could be reinstated, so this isn’t a death knell yet. However, it doesn’t look good. The rovers have gone way beyond their estimated life of 3 months, but like a good car, it’s no reason to scrap one of them yet.

Photo: Associated Press via NASA