- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — The rover Opportunity landed on Mars at 12:05 a.m. this morning, marking the second successful mission to the Red Planet this month.

Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, landed Jan. 3. Spirit began malfunctioning Wednesday, after days of sending pictures and other scientific data, but engineers said they were closing in on the problem that had reduced the rover to spewing gibberish and beeps.

Spirit resumed transmitting data Friday but only in limited batches. The malfunction, which appeared Wednesday, may prevent the rover from taking another drive on Mars for as long as three weeks, Mr. Theisinger said.

As Spirit shut down systems and “slept” 124 million miles from Earth, its twin, Opportunity, remained on track to make a bull’s-eye landing at 12:05 a.m. EST today in Meridiani Planum, navigation team chief Louis D’Amario said.

Navigators skipped a last chance to trim Opportunity’s path as it neared Mars. Early yesterday afternoon, it was just 64,000 miles from its destination and accelerating, tugged by the planet’s gravity.

Opportunity, like Spirit, must execute a choreographed sequence of events to ensure its safe arrival on Mars. The only difference: Opportunity was to open its parachute 4,500 feet higher than Spirit did to compensate for the higher elevation of its landing site.

Opportunity was targeted to land 6,600 miles — or halfway around Mars — from Spirit, which arrived in Gusev Crater. Together, the twin rovers make up a $820 million mission to determine if Mars ever was a wetter world capable of sustaining life.

NASA sent Spirit to Gusev Crater, a broad depression believed to once have contained a lake. It launched Opportunity toward Meridiani Planum, a flat, smooth region relatively free of the reddish dust that cloaks Gusev. Scientists believe Meridiani abounds in a mineral called gray hematite, which typically forms in marine or volcanic environments rich in water.

It remained unclear if Spirit would be able to fulfill its mission. The rover developed problems after working nearly flawlessly for days.

Mission members were able to stop the rover from rebooting its computer — which it had done roughly 130 times — and place it in so-called “cripple” mode to bypass the computer chips that make up its flash memory.

They also succeeded in commanding the robot to sleep after it stayed up two nights in a row when it should have been turned off to conserve power.

The root cause of Spirit’s problems remained elusive. NASA’s inability to reproduce the problem in laboratory software tests suggests that something is awry with the rover’s hardware, Mr. Theisinger said.

Not since the 1976 landing of the twin Viking landers has NASA had two working spacecraft on the surface of Mars.

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