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Software problems continue to plague both Mars rovers

Engineers hopeful one robot will last beyond 3 months

LOS ANGELES -- NASA said yesterday that its Spirit rover was a week away from rolling on Mars again but that the software problem vexing the spacecraft may trouble both it and its twin, Opportunity, for the duration of their double-barreled mission.

Engineers deleted more files from Spirit's flash memory but held off from reformatting it completely until tomorrow -- giving them more time to diagnose ongoing problems, mission manager Mark Adler said. NASA originally planned to perform the task Saturday.

The rover has been hampered by problems since Jan. 21, when it stopped transmitting intelligible information back to Earth. Once its flash memory is reformatted, Adler said, Spirit should be able to leave the low-power mode, which has restricted nighttime operations, and begin operating normally by tomorrow at the earliest.

"Then I think we can declare we are completely back in our normal mode," Adler said during a conference call with reporters.

Engineers will have to keep deleting files from Spirit's flash memory to keep their numbers low enough for the rover's random-access memory to manage. The same will be done for Opportunity.

Engineers also may regularly reformat the robots' flash memory, perhaps every week or two, Adler said.

Even with the computer glitch, engineers think at least one of the 384-pound robots may last longer than its warranted 90-day lifetimes. A 15-watt heater that has been turning on unnecessarily on Opportunity may curtail its extended mission, however.

NASA scientists said the solar-powered spacecraft have ample time to roam like no previous mission to Mars. Once underway, the rovers could cover thousands of yards apiece.

"I don't think the mobility side of the equation has hit us in the head yet," project manager Pete Theisinger said recently. "The first time we take a panorama and the lander's not there, it will hit home what we've accomplished."

NASA planned for Opportunity to reach out to the Martian soil with its robotic arm for the first time tomorrow. The six-wheeled rover rolled onto the dirt Saturday, a week after landing halfway around Mars from its twin, Spirit, which touched down Jan. 3.

Scientists expected Spirit to round out the weekend by making coordinated observations with Europe's Mars Express satellite as it flew over the rover's landing site, Adler said.

At Cape Canaveral, Fla., yesterday, NASA workers maked the one-year anniversary of the accident in which the shuttle Columbia broke apart and fell from the sky over Texas. They stood in silence at the moment of destruction, but much of the attention was on the prospects for the future of space exploration. The first anniversary of the catastrophe was a time for everyone -- rocket engineers, debris searchers, schoolchildren, space enthusiasts, even football fans -- to pause and remember.

"One year ago, at this very hour, the unthinkable occurred," Kennedy Space Center's director, Jim Kennedy, told the crowd of a few hundred who gathered on a gray, drizzly morning at NASA's astronauts memorial.

Kennedy quietly recited the names of the Columbia astronauts carved into the black granite monument behind him: Commander Rick Husband, copilot William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.

"They were our friends. They are our heroes. Their loss will not be in vain. We will come back bigger, better and stronger than ever before, and I can assure you that crew and their beloved families will never, ever be forgotten," Kennedy said.

Almost all of the mourners held a long-stemmed rose. After the brief outdoor ceremony, they tucked the red, yellow, peach, and ivory-colored roses into the white fence surrounding the memorial. Many wiped away tears.

The ceremony began at 9 a.m. EST, the instant NASA lost communication with Columbia over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003.

It ended at 9:16 a.m., the time the spacecraft should have landed on the Kennedy Space Center runway. By then, Columbia had shattered into tens of thousands of pieces that crashed down on Texas and Louisiana.

A piece of fuel-tank foam insulation had torn a hole in Columbia's left wing during the mid-January liftoff and allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter during atmospheric reentry.

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