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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 January, 2004, 19:55 GMT
Spirit seeks early return to work
Layered rocks, Nasa
The layers in the rock have generated great excitement
Nasa engineers believe they may have the Spirit rover back exploring the surface of Mars early next week.

The vehicle has had a flash memory glitch that has stopped it working properly on the planet since Thursday.

But the Nasa team is now preparing to use the vehicle's high-gain antenna again which should significantly improve probe-to-Earth communications.

"So you can imagine the additional data we'll get to debug the problems," said mission manager Jennifer Trosper.

Spirit was poised in front of a football-sized rock in Gusev Crater ready to run a series of tests when it broke down.

Spirit and Opportunity: Nasa space robots' Mars exploration mission

Initially, it was thought the high-gain antenna was at the root of the failure and all traffic was sent through the buggy's low-gain antenna instead.

The difference in data flow is huge - 11,000 bits per second (bps) compared with just 40-120 bps.

The slow information transfer has hampered engineers as they have grappled with the real problem, which affects the software that controls file management in Spirit's flash memory system.

The US space agency's Jennifer Trosper said the team was now making good progress, and explained the eventual fix could involve the deletion of a great many unnecessary files currently sitting in the memory.

"If we're on the right track we would hope to be back doing science early next week," she added.

Apollo memory

Spirit's twin rover, Opportunity, is on the far side of the planet at Meridiani Planum. It is being prepared for its roll on to the Martian surface, probably on Sunday.

Engineers are going through the process of making the vehicle "stand up" on its lander pad so its wheels can be unpacked ready for the drive.

In between the commissioning work, Opportunity is sending back colour images of its surroundings, including high-definition pictures of the rock outcrop just eight metres away that has so excited geologists.

These layered rocks measure 10 centimetres (4 inches) in height and are thought to be either volcanic ash deposits or sediments carried by water or wind.

"At this resolution, without compressing the data, you can start to see the small grains, pebbles and cobbles ...many of the layers look as though they may be composed of these pebbles and granular material," said image scientist Jim Bell.

Opportunity has now acquired its "mission success panorama" - a full, colour sweep of its landing area - with 75% of the data returned to Earth.

Nasa has also announced that three hills visible from Spirit's Gusev Crater landing site will be named after the Apollo 1 crew - Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee - who died in a launch pad fire at the Kennedy Space Center 37 years ago.

"Through recorded history explorers have had both the honour and responsibility of naming significant landmarks," said Nasa administrator Sean O'Keefe.

"Gus, Ed and Roger's contributions, as much as their sacrifice, helped make our giant leap for mankind possible. Today, as America strides towards our next giant leap, Nasa and the Mars Exploration Rover team created a fitting tribute to these brave explorers and their legacy."

The Spirit landing zone has already been named in memory of the Columbia shuttle crew which was killed on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere last February.

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