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Those amazing Mars rovers

There are many great things about my job, but one of the best is that I get to meet and and talk to some simply amazing people. Earlier this year, I posted about meeting one of the senior people involved with the Mars rovers -- those amazing robots that got shot to the Red Planet and have been just going and going and going. Literally! These two amazing 'bots were supposed to land and go for 90 days. They are now well past their 900th days -- 983 for Spirit and 962 for Opportunity. Talk about a government project that is working.

More on that, but there is news from Mars this week, because one of the rovers, Opportunity, this week reached the rim of the Victoria Crater. The WP notes:

The depth of the crater excites Mars scientists because the many visible layers of exposed rock are likely to yield new insights into the planet's past, especially when it may have had liquid water.

This is no small feat. The trek to the crater has been the mission's long-term destination for the past 21 Earth months, as the NYT notes.

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover spent 22 months trekking almost six miles to a large scientifically promising crater. Like a tourist who asks a passer-by to take a picture for proof he made it to a famous site, the robot rover has had another spacecraft snap an image of it sitting on the rim.

Scientists said Friday that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a powerful explorer that just settled into its ideal scientific orbit, had used its high-resolution camera this week to spot the golf-cart-size rover sitting on the side of Victoria Crater.

The remarkably detailed picture, taken on Wednesday from 186 miles above Mars's surface, shows the rover and its five-foot-high camera mast at the edge of the big impact crater and the robot's tracks.

Some tidbits from NASA:

Victoria Crater is about five times wider than "Endurance Crater," which Opportunity spent six months examining in 2004, and about 40 times wider than "Eagle Crater," where Opportunity first landed. The great lure of Victoria is the expectation that a thick stack of geological layers will be exposed in the crater walls, potentially several times the thickness that was previously studied at Endurance and therefore, potentially preserving several times the historical record.

Earlier this year at FCW Events' Spring CIO Summit, I got to hear and talk to Steven Squyres, a professor at Cornell University and who was the person who was overseeing the rover missions. And I remember thinking what amazing work this was and yet how challenging. Squyres talked about the difficult task of keeping everybody focused on their individual tasks.

The over all project was over budget, but it had to be on schedule because of the precise timing in order to get these rovers to Mars.

Squyres used that amazing NASA animation showing the whole launch and landing. [Here it is in QuickTime format; otherwise go here and it is the second item down.] The animation, in a way, is really unfair because it makes it all seem so easy. Too easy, when it comes right down to it. There is a part of the animation after they have landed on Mars -- no small task itself -- but they unfold themselves almost like a Praying Mantis. And I remember watching Squyres during that part and he actually winced. He then went on to tell us that the unfolding was one of the most difficult tasks because there were so many parts, and, of course, there was not repair crew if something went wrong.

Apparently one of the guys actually has a bum leg, so he actually drags one wheel along. But they are still truckin'.

Really amazing.

Be sure to click over the NASA's Mars rover site where they post photos all the time. Literally, you can wake up each morning and get a new Mars photo.

And Yahoo News has a micro-site that focuses on Mars, where you can keep up with the rovers.

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on Oct 08, 2006 at 12:15 PM


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