Robots set to explore Mars

The most ambitious exploration of Mars has begun as an American robot arrives on the Red Planet to spend three months seeking traces of life.

    The mission will seek out life on Mars

    At the end of a 500 million km trip

    which has taken seven months, the robots MER-A and MER-B are due to be

    parachuted down in special probes at opposite sides of Mars.

    The Mars Expedition Rover project has cost the National

    Aeronautics and Space Administration $800 million, and

    250 specialists and researchers from the US space agency are



    wo probes, Spirit and Opportunity launched on 10 

    June and 7 July respectively, are carrying the robots. 

    The first of the robots was due to descend towards Mars late on Saturday


    at a speed of 5.4 km per second. The second

    will make its descent three weeks later.

    "The risk is real, but so is the potential reward of using these

    advanced rovers to improve our understanding of how planets work"

    Ed Weiler,

    For the robots' descent, NASA has recycled the

    system it used successfully in 1997 on the Mars Pathfinder.

    Dangerous descent 

    Eight and a half km off the ground, a parachute will be deployed, and the thermal shield protecting the probe will be cast off.

    Tiny reactors will be used for braking and stabilisation as the probe lands.

    Eight seconds before touchdown, large cushions of air should be

    inflated around the probe, allowing it to bounce a dozen times upon

    landing before coming to a halt.

    Once the cushions deflate, the outer shell open up and the

    robot inside will begin to deploy its solar panels two hours after


    At that stage, a panoramic camera will be deployed to take the

    first colour pictures in an environment with temperatures of up to

    360 degrees.

    Tough mission

    If all goes well the first pictures will reach Earth the day

    after the first Rover's arrival on Mars.

    However, NASA has warned extensively about how tough its mission is, with

    a risk of failure if winds are too strong upon arrival or if the

    robot lands in the wrong spot.

    The European Space Agency lost
    contact with Beagle 2

    "The risk is real, but so is the potential reward of using these

    advanced rovers to improve our understanding of how planets work,"

    said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science.

    "I don't know what else humans could have done to make these two

    rovers successful." 

    Of 30 attempted Mars missions over the past 40 years, just 12

    have succeeded.

    The European Space Agency's Beagle 2 robot was supposed to land on Mars on 25


    , but NASA's rivals have since lost contact with the probe




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