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Millions Of Miles From Shutdown, Mars Rovers Keep Working

The budget negotiations in Washington are not front-page news on Mars. There, millions of miles away, NASA's rovers continue to operate, taking photographs and collecting data as they prepare for the coming Martian winter.

NPR's Joe Palca has this report for our Newscast unit:

"NASA's newest rover, called Curiosity, is on the move. It's headed to the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain that towers three-and-a-half miles above the floor of Gale crater where the rover landed. Scientists hope the foothills of the mountain will reveal some of the ancient geologic history of Mars.

"The other rover called Opportunity is studying something similar at the rim of Endeavor crater. In January, the rover that was designed to last 90 days will mark its tenth year on Mars.

"Some of Opportunity's instruments have stopped working, but it's still taking pictures and still roves across the surface, albeit quite a but slower than its newer partner on the other side of the planet."

The two rovers are taking in data and getting into strategic locations before winter arrives on Mars in a few months.

The scarcity of sunlight shouldn't pose a challenge for Curiosity, whose systems are powered by heat generated by the radioactive decay of plutonium. NASA hopes that the older Opportunity, which powers itself with solar panels, will be aided by its position on a north-facing slope.

As the Planetary Society website notes, this will be Opportunity's sixth winter:

"Harsh beyond belief, winters on Mars are life threatening, even for robots. Opportunity must endure constant, sometimes radical fluctuations in daily temperatures, not to mention survive temperatures as low as 100 degrees below freezing, all of which is really tough on her metal parts. Of course, the veteran rover has proved its resilience many times over while exploring this sub-freezing planet."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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