- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — After a journey of seven months and 303 million miles, a six-wheeled NASA rover tonight will speed like a bullet toward the surface of Mars and, if all goes as planned, stop with a bounce.

The plunge through the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph will mark the start of the riskiest portion of the voyage thus far.

As the unmanned spacecraft Spirit plummets to the rocky surface 80 miles below, it will rely on the precisely choreographed use of heat shields, parachutes and rockets to slow its descent. Just eight seconds before hitting the ground, the golf-cart-size Spirit should inflate a set of air bags to cushion its impact.

The entire harrowing trip down should take just six minutes. A gust of wind or a single sharp boulder could doom the entire enterprise.

“It’s going to be high anxiety,” Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, said yesterday at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Early yesterday, Spirit was 231,000 miles from Mars, or about the distance separating the Earth and its moon.

The $820 million project also includes a twin rover, Opportunity, which is to arrive on Mars on Jan. 24.

The camera- and instrument-laden rovers are designed to spend 90 days analyzing Martian rocks and soil for clues that could reveal whether the Red Planet was ever a warmer, wetter place capable of sustaining life.

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