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It's official: Twin rovers to explore Mars in 2003

Artist's impression of a Mars 2003 rover  

In this story:

Extra money must be found within NASA

Everything to be Webcast live

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Twin rovers with the specific mission of discovering sites where water might have once pooled on Mars will roam the planet's surface in 2004, NASA said Thursday.

The U.S. space agency said it would launch the two golf cart-sized rovers separately in 2003. While scientists have yet to choose the precise landing sites, they said one might go to a safe, flat area while the second might take on riskier, more aggressive terrain.

Manipulate the
Mars Global Surveyor

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Pathfinder landing site
In-Depth: Exploring Mars


"We are returning in force to Mars, this time with twins, twin rovers," Scott Hubbard, Mars program director for NASA in Washington, told a news conference.

"To have two rovers driving over dramatically different regions of Mars at the same time, to be able to drive over and see what's on the other side of the hill -- it's an incredibly exciting idea," Edward Weiler, associate administrator in NASA's Office of Space Science, added.

NASA has had this mission in the works for a while, but put any announcements on hold for several weeks.

Extra money must be found within NASA

Weiler said when NASA looked at all the favorable conditions -- the position of Mars in relation to Earth, how much sunlight would be falling on the planet's surface, and how long it would be (2006) before another such window opens, they decided to double up their efforts.

He said it took a little time to determine whether the agency could pull off the $600 million program.

Weiler said NASA would work with congressional budget staff to find the money for the extra lander -- which adds $200 million to the cost of the project -- within the agency's current budget allocation.

"We will not be asking for new money for NASA," he said.

If all goes well, the rovers will plunge to Mars, protected by a layer of airbags that make them resemble a giant bunch of grapes. They will then bounce and roll to a stop, and petal-like coverings will pop off, revealing the rovers themselves.

"The rover will wake up, stand up, put its mast up and take a look around," said Steven Squyres, who will lead the team putting the rover packages together.

"The rover heads off across the countryside and what we discover depends on what Mars throws at us."

The rovers will be about 4 feet (1.2 meters) high and weigh about 250 pounds (110 kg). "It has got 20-20 vision. It has got infrared vision," Squyres said.

The rover arms will be about the length of a man's arm, he said. "It can reach out, it can touch rocks."

Each will have about 10 cameras, one of them designed to look close-up at the structures of the rocks. They will also carry spectrometers to help determine what the rocks they encounter are made of.

Everything to be Webcast live

And they will be smart, Squyres said, unlike the 1997 Sojourner rover that had to be guided manually around each and every obstacle. The new rover, "can see obstacles and go around them," he said.

Everything the two rovers do and see will be Webcast virtually live, Squyres said. "When rover makes a new discovery, you will find out in real time. When rover gets into trouble, you will find out in real time, too."

Each rover will be able to cover about 100 yards (91 meters) in a day, as compared to Sojourner, which covered that distance in its entire lifetime. They are expected to last about 90 days before Mars dust blocks their solar power panels. Neither rover will look for the most recent evidence of water on Mars, based on photographs that scientists say indicate water seeped to the surface very recently. Garvin said the terrain where the tell-tale gullies were found is just too steep for the rovers to climb.

"Those sites tend to be on the sides of hills or mountains," Weiler said. "We don't have that technology right now."

Garvin said this mission, which has yet to be named, would look for sites where water might have pooled for thousands of years or more and left sedimentary deposits.

NASA was badly embarrassed by the loss of its Mars Polar Lander, which crashed last December, and of two associated probes. That disaster followed the failure of its Mars Climate Orbiter last September due to an embarrassing mix-up of English and metric measurements.

Weiler said NASA had learned from its mistakes and had made management changes to ensure this did not happen again. He said staff was pressured by budget cuts and crippled by poor communications.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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