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06-05-2005, 03:16 PM
Mars Rover Frees Itself From Sand Trap
Opportunity Back to Work After Being Mired in Dune for Five Weeks

PASADENA, Calif. (June 5) - The Mars rover Opportunity resumed rolling freely across the Martian surface Saturday after scientists freed it from a sand dune where it had been mired for nearly five weeks, NASA officials said.

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission, cheered when images beamed back to Earth showed the rover's wheels were free.

''We've got a working rover on Mars that cost $400 million to build and ... keep working,'' project manager Jim Erickson said. ''I'd like to wear it out rather than lose it.''

A photograph taken by Opportunity and posted on the laboratory's Web site showed the long tracks of its wheels crossing a featureless dune.

Opportunity's wheels started slipping April 26 during a planned 295-foot trip. While trying to drive over a foot-high sand dune, the robotic explorer stopped moving, its wheels hub-deep in soft soil.

Engineers spent weeks with an Opportunity mock-up figuring out what commands to give the robot to free it, but the maneuvers took time. The rover inched forward less than a foot in a month, losing most of its traction every time it tried to roll.

''It's kind of like we were swimming through it,'' Erickson said.

But on Saturday morning, data showed that Opportunity was free at last and had moved several feet across the dune.

Erickson said engineers want to be sure the rover will not encounter any more patches that could trap it again. It will be Monday or Tuesday night before a test drive is ordered, he said.

Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, have been exploring opposite sides of Mars since landing in January 2004. Both rovers have long outlasted their primary, three-month missions.

AP-NY-06-05-05 0732EDT



Mars rover Opportunity leaves wheel tracks after escaping from the sand dune.

NASA's $386 million Phoenix is scheduled to launch August 2007 and touch down on Mars' arctic region in May 2008
And this is a photograph from Mars:

Spirit Finds Sulfur

Sulfur-rich rocks in the "Columbia Hills" on Mars stand out in bright blue in this false-color image from the Spirit rover, dated March 7, 2005. Sprit used its rock abrasion tool to grind a hole in the rock. Its high sulfur content and softness are probably evidence of alteration by water. (Cornell / JPL / NASA)