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Six more months for Mars rovers

Spirit and Opportunity ride again

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Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity will spend another six months crawling over the surface of the red planet and sending data back to Earth.

The Rovers were designed to spend just three months exploring Mars, and have already exeeded those expectations. NASA scientists the two vehicles are showing few signs of their age, even though they are "well past warranty".

"We really don't know how long they will keep working, whether days or months. We will do our best to continue getting the maximum possible benefit from these great national resources," said Jim Erickson, project manager for both rovers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The twin vehicles have just emerged from a 12-day period of no contact with the ground teams on Earth. As Mars passed behind the Sun, the interference from solar particles made the Rovers' radio signals unreliable.

Erikson said it is a relief to get through this period, because as well as being out of contact, Spirit and Opportunity have been enduring the full force of a Martian winter, when the temperature at the poles can plummet to almost -150°C. Also, with less solar energy reaching the Martian surface, the rovers' activities have been curtailed by battery life.

Now, scientists are planning new daily activities for their Martian colleagues, and work on Mars will resume as before. Work on Earth, however, will be slightly different. Instead of working at JPL, the scienstist will continue their research from their home institutions.

NASA is also cutting the working week from seven to five days, but only from October to the end of December. This inactivity could be thought of as weekend sunbathing, as it will give the rovers a chance to recharge their photovoltaic cells after a low energy winter. ®

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