- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

NASA’s Spirit rover has reached the peak of Husband Hill, 300 feet above the surface of Mars.

Spirit and its sister rover Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004 with projected lifetimes of three months, but now have exceeded their “warranties” five times over.

Husband Hill was named after Rick Husband, the commander of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which was destroyed on Feb. 1, 2003. Six other hills in the area were named after Mr. Husband’s crew mates and the group are collectively known as the “Columbia Hills.”

The golf cart-size Spirit has traveled 2.95 miles in its year and a half on the red planet. Opportunity has traveled 3.56 miles.

“They’re both doing really well,” chief scientist Steve Squyres said. “The mini-TES [chemical analysis instrument] on Opportunity started working again a while back and is working really nicely. We’re doing really well.”

The rovers are showing their age, though. Each rover was equipped with a drill, designed to drill three times into hard rock. Spirit’s was used 15 times before it wore away. Now the instrument can only brush away dust from the surface of a rock before the rover’s close-up camera and chemical analysis instrument examine the rock.

Earlier Mr. Squyres had noted that the rovers were not going to go to the summit of the hill just to “plant a flag” unless it was the best place to go scientifically.

The summit is “a good place to get the lay of the land,” he said. “Geologists do this all the time — you climb to the top of a local hill and look around before you decide what you’re going to do next.”

But he also conceded, “I can remember when we landed, seeing Husband Hill off in the distance and thinking — ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool?’ And to actually be on top right now — it feels really good. I think it’s an amazing engineering accomplishment and the summit region has turned out to be a very, very science target-rich area as well.”

Mr. Squyres noted that the driving is much easier on the summit because the area is more windswept, without much dust.

Spirit’s next destination “depends on what we see,” Mr. Squyres said. “We’ll be checking stuff out as we go along. If we see more of the same stuff we’ll keep moving.”

He added, “The downhill run is going to be fast, if we choose to make it quickly. I believe we’ve got a decent chance of getting down off this [hill] and heading up something else. As long as we stay alive I think there’s plenty of good stuff out there.”

In its current location on top of Husband Hill, Spirit is taking a 360-degree color photo, both for scientific reasons and for a pretty postcard to send home. Mr. Squyres said, “We’re going to do the mother of all panoramas.”

NASA plans to release the summit panorama at a press conference next week.

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