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NASA: <i>Spirit</i>  Rover Back to Normal on Mars - 2004-02-06

The U.S. space agency NASA says its troubled Mars rover Spirit is finally back to normal and collecting science again. Computer problems had interrupted its data transmission more than two weeks ago, and threatened its water seeking mission. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have erased an overload of data that had clogged Spirit's computer memory and have reformatted the memory, as if it were new.

"I think I can say this morning, with as much certainty as we can say anything here, that our patient is healed," said Spirit mission manager Jennifer Trosper. The data surplus had initially prevented Spirit from communicating with mission controllers in late January. Ms. Trosper says that after weeks of troubleshooting and practice on a test rover on Earth, the cleansing of the so-called "flash" memory and reformatting worked, without corrupting computer programs needed to run the vehicle.

"Of course, it was nerve-wracking being 200 million miles [more than 300 million kilometers] away, and reformatting our flash. But in the end, the spacecraft did exactly what we wanted it to do, and it performed perfectly, and it's in great health right now," he said.

With a clear memory once again, Spirit has resumed operations. Its first task was to renew its attention toward a nearby rock, which it was prepared to examine when its computer first went bad. The rover extended its arm to brush dust off the stone to clean it for a scraping procedure in the coming days that will let scientists look below its surface to analyze its minerals and structure.

They are seeking geologic evidence that water once flowed on Mars, possibly supporting life.

The twin Opportunity rover is in a small, shallow crater on the other side of Mars, and has taken its first 3.5 meter drive toward an outcrop of exposed bedrock for analysis in days ahead. The six-wheeled vehicle was supposed to reach the rock Thursday, but its manager, Matt Wallace, says it is about 40 centimeters short of the goal.

"We're not entirely sure why we fell short, but we're pretty sure that what we're seeing is soil slippage," he said. "The vehicle is moving up the crater, and it's now tilted up by almost 13 degrees, and you start to get appreciable slip. Once we better understand what this soil is that we're on, and understand how the vehicle reacts to it, we'll be able to accommodate that, I think, pretty efficiently."

Opportunity will finish covering the short distance to the bedrock later Saturday. After its instruments spend several days peering at the outcrop, it will crawl up over the rim of the one-meter deep crater and roll onto the flat, barren plains surrounding it.