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June 29, 2007 - 12:01PM
Far out in space, a lonely Earthling is about to begin what may be a suicidal adventure.
Opportunity, one of NASA's two robot rovers that have been exploring Mars for more than three years, is about to be driven inside a gaping hole, blasted out millions of years ago by a meteorite.
The ragged Victoria Crater, named after the ship Magellan took on his circumnavigation of the world, is 730 metres wide and 70 metres deep and surrounded on almost all sides by sheer cliffs.
Scientists believe rocks exposed at the bottom of the crater could reveal clues to what lies below the surface of the red planet, and possibly even find evidence of underground water.
NASA officials admit that even if the US$400 million rover can safely negotiate its way into the crater without toppling over, there is no guarantee it will be able to drive out again.
Only designed to last 90 days on the Martian surface, the six-wheeeled Opportunity is showing signs of wear.
Its sister rover, Spirit, on the opposite side of the planet, has already lost the use of one wheel, which it now has to drag along.
"While we take seriously the uncertainty about whether Opportunity will climb back out, the potential value of investigations that appear possible inside the crater convinced me to authorise the team to move forward into Victoria Crater," Alan Stern, NASA's science chief and a member of the rover mission team, said.
"It is a calculated risk worth taking.We don't want this to be a one-way trip ... but if Opportunity becomes trapped there, it will be worth the knowledge gained."
Scientists plan to drive Opportunity into the crater at a spot they have dubbed Duck Bay, which has relatively gently slopes of 15 to 20 degrees and a surface covered in rock that should help the wheels grip the slippery slopes.
"Duck Bay looks like the best candidate for entry," said the rover's project manager, John Callas.
However, he warned, "these rovers are well past their design lifetimes, and another wheel could fail on either rover at any time.
"If Opportunity were to lose the use of a wheel inside Victoria Crater, it would make it very difficult, perhaps impossible, to climb back out."
Victoria Crater lies some six kilometres from where Opportunity landed in January 2004.
Since reaching the outer rim of the crater nine months ago, it has driven a quarter of the way around, and the back again, photographing the interior and looking for a safe way in.