Rover Missions Renewed as Mars Emerges From Behind Sun
As NASA's Spirit and Opportunity
rovers resumed reliable contact with Earth, after a period when
Mars passed nearly behind the Sun, the space agency extended
funding for an additional six months of rover operations, as long
as they keep working.
Both rovers successfully completed their primary three-month
missions on the surface of Mars in April and have already added
about five months of bonus exploration during the first extension
of their missions.
"Spirit and Opportunity appear ready to continue their
remarkable adventures," said Andrew Dantzler, solar system division
director at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "We're taking advantage
of that good news by adding more support for the teamwork here on
Earth that's necessary for operating the rovers."
Neither rover drove during a 12-day period this month, while
radio transmissions were unreliable because of the Sun's position
between the two planets. Daily planning and commanding of rover
activities recommenced Monday for Opportunity and today for
"It is a relief to get past this past couple of weeks," said Jim
Erickson, project manager for both rovers at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, Pasadena (CA). "Not only were communications disrupted,
but the rovers were also going through the worst part of Mars
southern-hemisphere winter from a solar-energy standpoint."
"Although Spirit and Opportunity are well past warranty, they
are showing few signs of wearing out," Erickson said. "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."
Rover science team members will spend less time at JPL during
the second mission extension. They are able to attend daily
planning meetings by teleconferencing from their home institutions
in several states and in Europe. "All 150 science team members and
collaborators have been provided the tools to be able to
participate remotely," said JPL's Dr. John Callas, science manager
for the rover project. Workstations researchers used at JPL are at
their home institutions. Planning tools include video feeds,
workstation display remote viewing, and audio conferencing.
Besides reducing costs, remote operations allow scientists to
spend more time at home. "We get back to more normal lives, back to
our families, and we still get to explore Mars every day," said Dr.
Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca (NY), principal
Another change in operations is a shift from seven days per week
to five days per week from October through December. This
accommodates a temporary trim of about 20 percent in the project's
engineering team to about 100 members. The rovers' reduced energy
supply, during the rest of the Martian winter, makes the inactive
days valuable for recharging batteries. By January, the energy
situation will have improved for the solar-powered rovers, provided
they are still operating. The team size will rebound to support
As Mars emerges from behind the Sun, Spirit is partway up the
west spur of highlands called the "Columbia Hills," a drive of more
than 3 kilometers (2 miles) from its landing site. Opportunity is
inside stadium-size "Endurance Crater," headed toward the base of a
stack of exposed rock layers in "Burns Cliff," and a potential exit
route on the crater's south side.