NASA readies rovers for Mars trip


Published: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 2:11 a.m.
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NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers working in a clean room do some final testing on one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers at JPL in Pasadena, Calif., Friday. The rovers are due to be shipped to Florida for launch in May and June.

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
PASADENA, Calif. - NASA is readying identical twin rovers for a mission to Mars, where the six-wheeled buggies will prospect for geologic evidence that the Red Planet was once wet enough to support life.
Engineers at the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are scrambling to finish assembling and testing the two rovers for launch on separate rockets in May and June.
The $800 million double mission marks NASA's second and most ambitious bid yet to roam the surface of Mars.
During the 1997 Pathfinder mission, the 23-pound Sojourner rover scurried about 100 yards across Mars. The latest rovers are 400 pounds each and will be able to cover far more ground, though at a tortoise's pace.
"What we're trying to do is put two field geologists on the surface of Mars," mission science manager John Callas said. "What does a field geologist do? It uses its senses and arms and legs. We've designed a robotic vehicle that mimics those capabilities."
The rovers - flat-topped buggies with bat-wing solar panels and a 5-foot-high mast - will examine the rocks and soil for clues that water was once present on the surface of Mars.
"You really want to focus on water because water, of course, is the only absolute prerequisite of life," said Matthew Golombek, who is helping pick the landing sites.
Mars has been the site of some of the space agency's biggest triumphs and some of its most humiliating failures. NASA lost two spacecraft at Mars in 1999. Sending two rovers is seen as a way to increase the chances of success.
The rovers will plunge into the Martian atmosphere after the seven-month trip from Earth and bounce down onto the planet in 2004. The rovers should last 90 days.
During that time, engineers hope each will drive 650 yards, examine six rocks and take sweeping, high-resolution panoramas of the Martian landscape, relaying the images and the mineralogical and chemical data back to Earth.
The two rovers will be part of an international flotilla of spacecraft expected at Mars by 2004. It will include no fewer than four orbiting satellites from Europe, Japan and the United States, and another lander, the British Beagle 2.
For now the robots are known as Mars Exploration Rovers A and B, although the Planetary Society and Lego are sponsoring a student contest to name them. The deadline is Jan. 31.

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