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Spirit Reaches Mountain Peak on Mars

BY Larisa Epatko  September 2, 2005 at 6:00 PM EDT

The summit of “Husband Hill” — named by mission scientists in memory of Commander Rick Husband, one of seven astronauts who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 — is 269 feet, or about the height of the Statue of Liberty.

“That’s no Mount Everest but for a little rover this was one heck of a climb,” said Dr. Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers science payload, at a press briefing Thursday.

Over the next week, scientists will study the panoramic images captured by Spirit and decide which way to send the rover for a closer look.

The area had been photographed by orbiting craft, but Spirit has provided a more detailed view. Destinations include heading south to inspect more layers of Husband Hill to learn about its structure and evolution, digging into various rocks, or rolling to an area dubbed “home plate” — a flat region surrounded by bumpy terrain, said Dr. Ray Arvidson, the mission’s deputy principal investigator.

Husband Hill, which is part of the low-ranging Columbia Hills, named after the shuttle, is exposed bedrock — in other words, part of the integral structure of the mountain, which can lend more clues about the planet’s composition.

It took the golf cart-sized rover about a year, with many stops along the way, to reach the crest, located about 2 miles from Spirit’s original landing spot in the Gusev Crater.

Spirit, and its twin rover, Opportunity, landed on the Red Planet in January 2004 for a three-month mission that still continues today.

Mission scientists expressed delight at the rovers’ continued life span. “I never thought we’d be sitting here today on day 591 of our 90-day mission to Mars,” said Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Soon after the rovers arrived, they found evidence in the composition and appearance of rocks that much of Mars was once drenched in water.

The rovers have been taking thousands of images of the planet, including of dust devils created by high temperatures and low atmospheric pressure, which allows even low winds to produce the swirling funnels.

The wind also helps clear the dust that accumulates on the rovers’ solar panels, enabling them to operate at nearly the same level of energy efficiency as when they arrived, said Dr. Jake Matijevic, Mars Exploration Rover engineering team chief.

Spirit has used its rock abrasion tool so often to scrape and sample rocks, that the nub has worn down, leaving only its brushing capability, Matijevic said.

Opportunity, located on the other side of Mars from Spirit, is recovering from a computer glitch that caused the rover to temporarily shut down.

The rovers are operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.