Monday, February 16, 2004

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Spirit rover went for its longest trip yet on the surface of Mars, traveling more than 88 feet but stopping short of the distance that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had hoped it would cover, scientists said yesterday.

Engineers had hoped the rover would travel 164 feet on its way to a crater known as Bonneville to examine rocks and soil for evidence that water might have existed on the Red Planet, mission manager Jim Erickson said.

“Spirit, she’s put some more territory behind her,” Mr. Erickson said. “We’re closer, but not as close as we’d wanted to be.”

The rover didn’t cover the full distance because it spent more time than planned studying rocks and soil along the way, he said.

Spirit’s longest previous distance covered in a day was 70 feet. That occurred last week.

Before setting off for the crater, Spirit investigated a flaky rock dubbed Mimi. Scientists want to know why the rock is flaky while nearby rocks are not.

Mr. Erickson said flakiness may indicate layering — a sign the rock might have been formed over time instead of all at once, as may be the case with a rock spit from a volcano.

Scientists revised their estimate of the distance to the Bonneville crater, saying it is about 1,150 feet from Spirit’s landing place. The robot still has about 800 feet to go to reach the crater.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Mars, Opportunity was digging a trench in an area called Hematite Slope because it is rich in the iron-bearing mineral that typically forms in water.

“What we’re trying to do is figure if the surface that we see is the same all the way down,” Mr. Erickson said.

NASA scientists hoped Opportunity would finish the trench yesterday so they could see whether layering had occurred.

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