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A Mars rover  (Source: NASA)

The discovery made on the Red Planet  (Source: NASA)
The Mars rovers continue to impress

NASA this week announced its Mars Exploration Rover Spirit discovered a patch of land on Mars that revealed the possibility of a past environment able to sustain microbial life.

While exploring a scientifically important area of Mars last May, Spirit, while dragging a broken wheel on the surface, discovered a patch of "nearly pure silica" found the Home Plate section of Mars.  Scientists believe it came from a hot-spring or fumarole -- an environment which forces acidic steam to rise through cracks on the planet's surface, also stripping mineral components while leaving only silica behind.

Even though the rovers were not designed to evaluate possible signs of life, each discovery like this one provides pieces to a complicated puzzle on Mars.  Researchers hope to have the opportunity to study this specific location on Home Plate when new missions are launched to the Red Planet.  The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), scheduled to launch in September 2009, will be NASA's first chance to head back to Home Plate.

"Whichever of those conditions produced it, this concentration of silica is probably the most significant discovery by Spirit for revealing a habitable niche that existed on Mars in the past," said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for data gathered by the rovers.

Spirit now has only two weeks to safely arrive at a sun-facing slope on Home Plate before strong dust storms paralyzes it for the winter.

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A Testament to Good Engineering
By JBird7986 on 12/12/2007 10:07:12 AM , Rating: 5
Spirit and Opportunity were designed to last for 90 days and landed in early 2004. The fact that they are still going strong and making discoveries like this after nearly 4 years is an incredible engineering feat.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Lazlo Panaflex on 12/12/2007 10:33:45 AM , Rating: 2
Indeed...add Voyager I and II to that list. Still going strong after 30+ years. Too bad it'll take 40,000 years for them to make it to the nearest star.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By FITCamaro on 12/12/2007 10:39:24 AM , Rating: 2
Their nuclear power sources will be long since depleted. I believe Voyager 1 is already running out of power.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Lazlo Panaflex on 12/12/2007 11:03:17 AM , Rating: 3
Yeah..I believe they said they should be good to go until ~2020, at which time they should be in Interstellar space, speeding toward the Machine Planet... :-P

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By FITCamaro on 12/12/2007 12:55:45 PM , Rating: 3
No man. Voyager II will somehow form into some gigantic cloud thing that can capture star ships and then work its way back across the galaxy attempting to find its creator.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By TITAN1080 on 12/12/07, Rating: 0
By Chernobyl68 on 12/12/2007 2:59:39 PM , Rating: 2
Deltan...she was Deltan.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Sahrin on 12/12/2007 8:37:35 PM , Rating: 2
Voyager 6 - not 2.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Bonesdad on 12/12/2007 11:55:37 PM , Rating: 2
That's what he was talking about...the planet of machines sent Voyager 6 back the way it came in search of it's a ship that looks like a giant "cloud". Jeez...not much of a geek are you?

By Lazlo Panaflex on 12/13/2007 11:57:43 PM , Rating: 2
lol..well said, Mr. Camaro ;)

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By LeviBeckerson on 12/12/2007 11:05:43 AM , Rating: 2
Both craft should still be functioning at well over half their original power output. They started with 470 watts and as of 2001, V2 was at around 319. I forget the number for V1, but I want to say it was 315 for some reason. Several systems were shut down to conserve the remaining fuel for as long as possible.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By MrTeal on 12/12/2007 11:43:12 AM , Rating: 3
It's not to save fuel, the fuel will decay at a constant rate no matter how much power you're using. At this point they just lack the power to run all the instruments, so they've shut down some to keep others active.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By jpmills on 12/12/2007 7:23:56 PM , Rating: 4
Currently Voyager is running on 283.9 watts as of 12/5 and Voyager 2 is running on 285.4 Watts. V1 is 31 W above minimum and V2 is 20 W above.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By phattyboombatty on 12/12/07, Rating: -1
RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By MastermindX on 12/12/2007 1:04:56 PM , Rating: 3
To me a scientist that estimates that the mars rover is only supposed to last 90 days and it is still going strong three years later is incompetant and should be fired.

OMG! My microwave is only guaranteed for 90 days and it's still working after 8 years without repair!!! The engineer who designed it need to be hung!</sarcasm>

I guess that 90 days prediction was more of a minimal duration than a maximal one.

It is not because something is designed to work at least 90 days without breaking that it won't last 10 years.

I'm not an engineer, but I'm pretty sure mechanical wear is harder to evaluate than energy usage.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Adonlude on 12/12/2007 2:23:22 PM , Rating: 3
You're microwave manufacturer doesn't spend billions of tax payer dollars nor does it need big successes and surprises to justify its spending. NASA wasn't going to give us our money back if the rovers had failed in less than 90 days, nor would they have replaced them. Excellent analogy otherwise though.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Aiserou on 12/12/2007 4:44:29 PM , Rating: 3
There is also the fact that nobody expected the wind to clean off the solar panels so effectively. It was fully expected that after 90 days the panels would be so covered in dust that the rovers would no longer be able to function, so 90 days was given as a minimal mission time.

Also, traveling across an alien terrain via remote can be ridiculously hard. If they manage to get the rover stuck in loose dirt or something, its not like someone can just go kick it loose. Every time they move an inch, they spend hours, if not days, evaluating things like soil density, slope angle, rock size, etc.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By FITCamaro on 12/12/2007 1:08:24 PM , Rating: 5
Lets see here.....which is going to last longer.....a thing that just flies through space, taking measurements and pictures......or an incredibly complex robot that moves across an alien planet, is fueled by solar energy, and can actually interact with its surroundings taking soil samples and what not? About the only thing Voyager I and II had to worry about was getting hit with micro-meteorites or a system failing. The chances of the former happening to something so small are astronomical. Most of Spirit and Opportunities problems have been power related.

While Voyager I and II are remarkable achievements, so are the Spirit and Opportunity. Their life expectancy was only 90 days originally because NASA thought by then, their solar panels would be too covered in dirt to adequately power the robots. However, surface winds of Mars have kept the solar panels of the two relatively dust free until recently.

If Spirit and Opportunity had nuclear power cells like Voyager I and II, their lives would have been far easier since they wouldn't have to rely on whether or not the sun was up. They have to have enough power to keep their internal systems warm or they'll freeze up and stop functioning. Thats hard to do on an alien planet where we can't completely predict the weather.

So before you completely bash modern space exploration, do a little research. And I'm sure NASA would have loved to use nuclear power cells. But with all the environmental activists out there who heavily protest even the slightest bit of radioactive material from being launched into space, they weren't able to. I was in college less than an hour from KSC when those things were launched. I couldn't have cared less if they had nuclear power cells. I think the potential benefits far outweigh the risk. Especially considering that even if the rocket blew up, its not like it'd be an atom bomb going off.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By maven81 on 12/12/2007 1:30:21 PM , Rating: 2
If I remember correctly the voyager missions were not without their share of close calls either... shortly into the mission Voyager IIs main receiver failed, the computer switched to the backup, then the backup failed, and it was switched back to the primary. I think it may have went another round even... The people on the ground nearly lost contact with it, but eventually managed to solve the problem.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By timmiser on 12/12/2007 1:58:00 PM , Rating: 1
Well, that is exactly why they shouldn't be putting a life expectancy on any mission such as this because of the unkown factors that nobody can predict. They knew beforehand that the design of the rovers could go on indefintely and should have left it at that. The wheels turn, the solar panels recharge, the things keep going...

By saying 90 days and then saying it has been a huge and unexpected sucess because they have exceeded the original 90 day estimate, does sound hyperbolic to me.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By MrTeal on 12/12/2007 2:18:23 PM , Rating: 4
I think these sort of things might be due to the approval process. When they're looking for the money, they say the mission is slated to last 90 days, we're expecting to be able to gather X amount of data, can we have the money.

If the mission lasts the 90 days and collects enough information, it was a success and in the eyes of the people who greenlighted it, the data collected paid the cost of the mission. If it goes longer, great.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By ChristopherO on 12/12/2007 4:45:02 PM , Rating: 2
True, and they can be at risk for having their funding pulled. For instance they document a desire for 90-days of science, they fulfill that, and a pinhead decides they want to plug the money pit.

I seriously doubt Spirit and Opportunity would have these problems because they represent a scientific icon at this point. Less glamorous projects lose funding all the time.

Another thing, everyone keeps talking about the 90-day window. In all fairness, the original rover didn't hold up nearly as well. I don't know if they know the reason for its failure, but it is better to go in and assume a limited lifespan. No one wants to go to Mars, plan for two years of science, and have a freak weather system permanently shroud the solar panels in dust.

Side note: Why didn't they put a "solar panel wiper" on the thing? One would think a remote controlled rubber squeegee wouldn't have been too big of a design issue, compared to the 100 million mile voyage and all...

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Aiserou on 12/12/2007 4:58:42 PM , Rating: 2
Side note: Why didn't they put a "solar panel wiper" on the thing? One would think a remote controlled rubber squeegee wouldn't have been too big of a design issue, compared to the 100 million mile voyage and all...

Solar panels aren't a smooth surface, you can't squeegee them without potentially ripping out individual cells. You could put a glass cover over them,, but that would add a lot of weight, a lot more design issues since the panels were designed to fold out, and glass is pretty fragile for things like take-off, re-entry, and bouncing across the terrain in a balloon. I'm not saying it's not possible, but it's certainly not as trivial as it sounds.

By ChristopherO on 12/12/2007 6:36:19 PM , Rating: 2
I was thinking acrylic. You could have a track running the length of the panel on both sides, once per day a buffing device could make a single pass over the surface. This presumes rectangular panels, or a buffer that could expand over a surface of varying width.

Even a small high-rpm blower might work. I know the atmospheric density is much lower, but it seems like there are thousands of possible solutions given that dust-on-the-panels seems to be the biggest problem with long-term survivability. It doesn't need to be squeaky clean, just "enough."

The only thing I can think of is that they really did build it for 90-days and are genuinely stunned they made it this long. I can't blame them; we can't reliably predict hurricanes on our own planet. I'm thinking Martian weather is a bit touchier.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Aiserou on 12/12/2007 4:52:24 PM , Rating: 2
The point is, the people who made the life expectancy were the engineers, not the mission coordinators. The engineers had to be able to say this machine will work for x amount of days, so that the mission coordinators could take that number and plan as much as possible into that x amount of days. Anything after that is just icing on the cake, but they had to make sure they accomplished what they needed before the guaranteed time ran out.

It has been a huge and unexpected success. Find my other post about wind cleaning the solar panels to explain why.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By timmiser on 12/12/2007 5:43:09 PM , Rating: 2
What do you mean by "guaranteed time"? Nobody could guarantee anything. Not 1 day or 10 years. That is the whole point.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Aiserou on 12/12/2007 10:45:51 PM , Rating: 2
Ok, yea, that was the wrong word to use. But the point stands, they had to have a set amount of time they could plan for.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By BSMonitor on 12/12/2007 3:11:03 PM , Rating: 3
The immense gravity of the 4 gas giant planets.... No problem. Why worry about that? Especially considering the delay between sending a command and receiving data.

But even if the Voyagers run out of power, they will still keep going. They just can't communicate with us any more.

Maybe someday, we can send another probe to go and look for them. One that travels a little faster of course.

What we really need is for Crighton to just give us that damn wormhole technology!

By FITCamaro on 12/12/2007 5:19:40 PM , Rating: 2
Gravity can be calculated. As can transmission time for a a signal to get to a probe. Both probe's courses were calculated before they ever lifted off. I forget which one was rerouted to get a look at other planets but again, lots of calculations were done and checked.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By timmiser on 12/12/2007 5:48:30 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe someday, we can send another probe to go and look for them. One that travels a little faster of course.

Maybe we can send a manned probe and call it The Enterprise.

RE: A Testament to Good Engineering
By Bonesdad on 12/12/2007 11:57:58 PM , Rating: 2
you sound like Scotty..." didn't tell him how long it would REALLY take to repair it, did you?"

By SpatulaCity on 12/13/2007 1:01:05 AM , Rating: 2
Great engineering, Hell yeah! I remember when they landed, I was glued to NASA TV to see the first pictures on Mars. Geez, that was soo long ago, I'm on my 4th girlfriend since that time. :)

Consider the irony..
By ToeCutter on 12/12/2007 9:53:50 AM , Rating: 2
So, had Spirit not suffered its broken wheel, this discovery may not have happened?

Irony at its best...

RE: Consider the irony..
By wwwebsurfer on 12/12/2007 10:05:27 AM , Rating: 4
this is not irony, this is the essence of science. generally when everything goes well there is no discovery, no advancement. it's only when something breaks, something fails, something happens that forces us to question that true science occurs.

RE: Consider the irony..
By jskirwin on 12/12/2007 10:06:57 AM , Rating: 4
Not irony: serendipity

RE: Consider the irony..
By pnyffeler on 12/12/2007 12:09:58 PM , Rating: 5
Serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer's daughter.

RE: Consider the irony..
By johnsonx on 12/12/2007 6:54:08 PM , Rating: 2
unless she's fat and ugly, in which case you're back to irony.

RE: Consider the irony..
By TomZ on 12/12/2007 10:10:31 AM , Rating: 1
That's a pretty romantic and pessimistic view. I would guess the reality is that most scientific breakthroughs are the result of hard work and diligence, although there are sometimes "happy accidents," (some of which are pretty well-known).

RE: Consider the irony..
By littlebitstrouds on 12/12/2007 10:33:28 AM , Rating: 2
Lighten up Tom

RE: Consider the irony..
By AnnihilatorX on 12/12/2007 10:40:40 AM , Rating: 2
I can recall off my head Radar and Penicillin
There should be quite a lot of accidental finds in science

RE: Consider the irony..
By Ratwar on 12/12/2007 11:01:31 AM , Rating: 4
Yep, a lot of scientific discoveries are started by odd observations, which are followed by hard work to explain and utilize them.

RE: Consider the irony..
By TITAN1080 on 12/12/07, Rating: -1
RE: Consider the irony..
By mrteddyears on 12/12/2007 11:36:25 AM , Rating: 3
The wheel was stamped "Made in china"

RE: Consider the irony..
By Sahrin on 12/13/2007 12:37:38 PM , Rating: 2
"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but 'That's funny ...'"-Isaac Asimov

RE: Consider the irony..
By ToeCutter on 12/12/2007 11:11:50 AM , Rating: 2
Irony at its best...

My irony comment was centered around the unfortunate nature of Spirit losing control of its wheel a while back. I read a blurb from NASA stating that the failed wheel would likely mean the end of Spirit, and here the broken wheel has actually led to perhaps its most important discovery.

By InsaneGain on 12/12/2007 11:43:30 AM , Rating: 2
I'm sure I am confused here. So NASA is now announcing that one of the rovers made an important discovery of pure silica sand last May?? I remember reading about that discovery months ago. Is it that they are now realizing the significance of the discovery?

RE: news?
By Cerberus29 on 12/12/2007 11:52:36 AM , Rating: 2
I hope not, else I'm slightly worried about the people who work there.

RE: news?
By Hieyeck on 12/12/2007 1:19:49 PM , Rating: 3
Because that's what proper scientific method is. You run your tests. Then run them again and again until you can prove it wasn't a fluke or a something mucking up the equipment. Considering it's still running at just under 4 years past it's expiry date, some of it's best equipment is bound to be kaput or working at degraded levels. Trying to verify your data is like trying to do a miniature maze with an extra thick sharpie. It's POSSIBLE, just going to take a damned long time. NASA can't afford to say "Oops. Sorry, my mistake." When they do that, they take alot of heat and bad rap. Columbia, the Mars Climate Ordbiter (this was the metric-imperial mixup, where they crashed the thing because they didn't check the units.) are some of the more recent events.

RE: news?
By FITCamaro on 12/12/2007 2:27:42 PM , Rating: 2
Now if only global warming "experts" would try this.....

RE: news?
By BSMonitor on 12/12/2007 3:16:30 PM , Rating: 3
You think if they called it "Global Climate Change" from the beginning, people would be more receptive?

RE: news?
By ciparis on 12/12/2007 3:24:38 PM , Rating: 3
Sure, but there are unacceptable extremes in both camps.

When there's a rock that looks like it's about to land on your head, arguing about precisely how far you need move out of the way (or who threw it) before taking a single step is nonsensical (and not good science). Anyone requiring that precise of a measurement before committing to move will get what comes naturally; unfortunately, so will anyone standing near them.

Considering the penalty of being wrong in either case, I think I'd chose sane action over inaction any day.

Article Title
By Ratwar on 12/12/2007 11:03:15 AM , Rating: 5
Am I the only one that finds it a bit redundant? I mean, where else would the Mars rover make an 'Important Find'?

RE: Article Title
By timmiser on 12/12/2007 2:01:58 PM , Rating: 3
That would be a "6" on Mars.

RE: Article Title
By johnsonx on 12/12/2007 7:00:29 PM , Rating: 2
The Mars Rover, having been sent to Mars, landed on Mars, traveled around the Martian terrain of Mars, taking pictures of the Martian landscape on Mars, dragging it's little gimpy wheel through the Martian sand on Mars, makes an important find on.... wait for it... wait for it... Mars?

By goz314 on 12/12/2007 2:17:17 PM , Rating: 2
There should be a couple of corrections/clarifications posted about the details in this article. While MSL is scheduled to head to Mars in 2009, it is most likely not going back to 'home plate' in Gusev crater. While I am sure there is additional investigative work that can be done at that site with the new suite of instruments that the MSL will be carying, the project scientists are looking at other sites on the surface of Mars to explore. Unless strong evidence turned up that microbial life were present at that exact spot either presently or sometime in the past, NASA would not send the 800M dollar MSL to the exact spot where another 400M dollar rover had alread conducted 90% of the useful remote investigation. Mars is a big place and there are quite a few other areas that MSL is better suited to explore.

The other clarification that should be made is with regard to the statment about there only being two weeks left for Spirit to reach a sun-facing position in advance of the impending "strong dust storms." First off, Martian winter does not correlate with winter solstice on Earth which is in a little less than two weeks. Likewise, the approach of southern martian winter (the minimum point of which is not until June) has no relation to the amount of dust activity seen locally at the rover's location. Over the past 4 years, there has only been 1 global dust storm of the type that Mars can experience and that has threatened the rover's energy supply. These global dust storms are not annual or seasonal events nor are they very predictable.

RE: Corrections...
By goz314 on 12/12/2007 2:20:03 PM , Rating: 2
Ooops.... I should point out that this is not an article, but a blog entry. That's an important distintion that needs to be made at dailytech these days.

RE: Corrections...
By johnsonx on 12/12/2007 7:01:35 PM , Rating: 2
no, it isn't a blog entry, it's a science article.

Do Not Eat!
By Mitch101 on 12/12/2007 10:04:12 AM , Rating: 5
Should have a Do Not Eat sign on it.

Hmmm Why...
By vhx on 12/12/2007 1:30:22 PM , Rating: 2
Have I seen many pictures like this over the last couple of years and this is the first time they have announced this?

By oliphanj on 12/13/2007 1:27:48 PM , Rating: 2
So if my water heater is designed to work for 10 years shouldn't it last about 100 years? Who and the hell is designing those things?

MSL Not Targetting Gusev
By marsbound2024 on 12/13/2007 3:53:36 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, unfortunately, Gusev Crater is not one of MSL's potential targets so I don't think it will be visiting Home Plate. There's still lots of Mars to explore and potentially far more interesting places that the MSL is capable of reaching and the MER rovers were not. The landing system on the MSL (and the likelihood of a radioisotope power source) is more advanced and will allow that rover to have a smaller landing ellipse. Not near as many worries about trying to land MSL in rugged terrain and it crashing into a cliff as it would be with MER-A and B (10 kilometer error versus 150 kilometer error).

good sci-fi book on Mars...
By TITAN1080 on 12/12/2007 1:47:50 PM , Rating: 1
Read; The Martian Race by Gregory Benford.

"Nowadays you can buy a CPU cheaper than the CPU fan." -- Unnamed AMD executive
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