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Mars rover closing in on Victoria crater

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Opportunity, the Mars rover, is edging ever closer to the edge of the Victoria crater, which has been its goal for more than half its time on the red planet.

NASA says the view from the edge of the crater will be the "grandest" yet, and that exploring the crater will yield a rich scientific trove.

NASA says it expects the rover to reach the edge of the crater sometime within the next two weeks, depending on the amount of sunlight it receives. Although it is still winter in the Martian southern hemisphere, the days are increasing in length, meaning the rover gets more power from its solar panels every day.

Victoria is just over half a mile wide, and approximately 230 feet deep.

Scientists hope that examination of the rocks in the crater will add to their understanding of the role water has played in forming the Martian landscape.

"In particular, we are very interested in whether the rocks continue to show evidence for having been formed in shallow lakes," says Ray Arvidson of Washington University, deputy principal investigator for both rovers.

Earlier in its time on Mars, Opportunity has examined stacks of exposed Martian rock some 23 feet thick in the crater Endurance. The Victoria crater offers the prospect of far more to study with exposed rock layers up to 130 feet thick.

Arvidson said: "We want to...understand whether the environment that produced these materials was similar to the environment recorded in the rocks that we have seen so far. Is there a record of a different type of deposition? Was there a wet environment that was less acidic, perhaps even more habitable? Where do the layers from Endurance fit in this thicker sequence?"

When the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which arrived at the planet in March 2006, begins its survey of the surface this November, the Victoria crater is one of the areas scheduled to be mapped.

This means scientists will have two sets of data to cross reference, something that always makes them happy. ®

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