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Mars rovers dust-free and on the move

Opportunity peers into crater

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After weathering the dust storms of the past two months, the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have had their solar panels swept free off dust by kinder, gentler winds. With full power restored, the two explorers are now ready to renew their slow crawl over the surface of the red planet.

Opportunity now stands on the crest of Victoria crater (pictured below), and is set to begin its descent as early as September 11 (Tuesday).

The view into Victoria Crater on Mars. Credit: Opportunity, for NASA

The rover arrived at the edge of the crater in August. Mission managers have been scouring the images it beams back for suitable entry routes. The team wants to examine a band of bright rocks around 40 feet from the rim. The team hopes the route they have selected will give the rover good traction as it heads into the crater.

But getting to the entry point is not the only challenge: the team also needs to make sure all of Opportunity's instruments have survived the scouring dust storms. Recent data from the miniature thermal emission spectrometer (Mini-TES) suggested the instrument, which is mounted high on the rover's camera mast, might be stuck, sending back images of the rover's mast, rather then the views of Mars.

"If the dust cover or mirror is no longer moving properly, we may have lost the ability to use that instrument on Opportunity," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for the rovers' science instruments. "It would be the first permanent loss of an instrument on either rover. But we'll see."

The loss of the instrument would not matter quite as much to Opportunity's exploration as it would on Spirit. Opportunity's twin has reached its long-term goal of the Home Plate plateau, an area of layered bedrock NASA describes as holding clues to "an explosive mix of lava and water". This region has an extremely diverse mix of rock types, making the Mini-TES invaluable in sifting through them.

Opportunity will rely more on its alpha particle X-ray spectrometer to investigate the bright band of rocks in Victoria crater. ®

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