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Cosmic Climbing and Timing

July 13, 2005

This image shows the vast landscape strewn with a small rocks that pepper as far as the eye can see, leading up to seven wavy hills that peak up about 100 feet two miles in the distance.  The landscape is a brownish red, white airbags in the foreground are covered in the same brownish red dust, and in the distance, the sky is tan.  Text graphics have been added to the image, with arrows pointing to the names, location, and distance from the lander to the various hills.
A panoramic camera image taken soon after Spirit's landing depicts the distant hills dedicated to the final crew of Space Shuttle Columbia.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell
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A poetic cosmic convergence is building to a crescendo: as the first space shuttle flight since the loss of the Shuttle Columbia prepares to fly 200 miles (320 kilometers) above the Earth, the Spirit rover is climbing the last 200 meters (656 feet) toward the summit of the "Columbia Hills" on Mars.

After two years of meticulous preparations for Return to Flight, the Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to fly, and after 19 months of dauntless determination, Spirit is nearing the top of "Husband Hill."

This image shows seven astronauts smiling and floating in formation inside the space shuttle with their faces up and beaming as their bodies angle straight back as if they were lying on the floor.  The bottom two men and two women wear matching red short-sleeved shirts and the top three men wear matching blue shirts.  An American peaks over their heads and hangs on the back wall.
The Shuttle Columbia crewmembers strike a "flying" pose for a portrait in January 2003. This picture was on a roll of unprocessed film later recovered by searchers from the debris.    Image credit: NASA/JSC
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Named after Rick Husband, Commander of the Shuttle Columbia, "Husband Hill" is the tallest among seven hills, each named after the brave souls who flew on Columbia's last mission.

Rover driver Chris Leger remembers Principal Investigator Steve Squyres' enthusiasm about the "Columbia Hills" on Mars. When Spirit first landed in Gusev Crater, the hills were 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) away. Enamored with the expansive landscape, Leger recalls Squyres saying, "The real fun will come when we try to climb those mountains." Leger thought, "Yeah right - we don't even know if we can drive 200 meters (656 feet) - the "Columbia Hills" are just a dream!"

This aerial image of Spirit's latest traverse area is colorized in a runny, watercolor-like fashion to indicate the height of various hills.  The upper portion of the images is in blue (low), the middle is in green (medium height), and the bottom right of the image is pinkish brown (tall).  Various colored text overlays the image demarking the path of Spirit in bright yellow from sol 210 in the middle left of the image to sol 536 in the center of the image with a red circle.  Names of science features of interest are also marked in white.  A scale and direction indicator are in black on the bottom right.
This aerial image of Spirit's latest traverse area was taken by the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft on Spirit's sol 536 (July 6, 2005).
Image credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science
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Hills Rich with Science Clues

On Spirit's sol 156, the dream came true. After five months, Spirit successfully traversed the desert landscape, and began to drag a tired front wheel up the hills. "It's past sol 500 now, and I've been itching to get to the summit for a year, but we've been stopping and collecting a lot of good science," says Leger.

The science team is trying to figure out how the surface of Mars has evolved and if water was around long enough on Mars to have provided a past habitat for life. In the hills named in remembrance of the Columbia astronauts, scientists have discovered multiple types of rocks that formed under various conditions, including water, and are finding new clues as they ascend.

This image shows Steve Squyres meshed up against the vertical face of a cliff, which is covered in half-foot-deep ice.  Squyres is wearing black and red snow-gear with red boots and black ice cleets that look like a combination of bear claws and ice skates.  Squyres has an ice-pick-like pole in his right glove-covered hand that he appears to be stabbing the ice with so he can pull himself up the ice mountain crest.  Squyres is facing the mountain and has his feet spread apart with the tip of his boots piercing into the ice.  The image was taken from back and below Squyres, and his face is not visible.
Principal Investigator Steve Squyres ice climbing in upstate New York.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Squyres
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Mountaineering on Earth and Mars

"Husband Hill" contains the most challenging terrain to climb. "We're driving on steep slopes between 10 and 30 degrees, while constantly maneuvering around hazardous rocks and drop-offs and dodging sandy patches where Spirit could slip, dig in, and get stuck," explains Leger.

Despite the treacherous terrain of "Husband Hill," Leger agrees with Squyres' prediction that climbing the hills would be fun. And if climbing the first mountain on another planet isn't enough, both Squyres and Leger are avid climbers on Earth. Squyres is an ice climber who spends winter months ascending frozen waterfalls that dot the countryside of upstate New York.

Leger is a rock climber who goes "bouldering" twice a week. "It's a lot like driving the rover because, to climb a boulder, you have to look at features on the rock and pick a sequence of movements and tricks that you think might work, but until you try, you don't know how it's going to turn out," explains Leger.

This image shows the side view of Chris Leger wearing long black pants, a long-sleeved sweatshirt, sunglasses, and a black skullcap as he climbs his way up an almost completely vertical boulder.  Chris is about 25 feet off the ground, where a person stands with his arms extended upwards, ready to guide Chris to the foam pad on the ground if Chris falls.  Chris is wedged between two 40-foot tan boulders, and a small patch of deep, blue sky peers overhead.
Rover driver Chris Leger bouldering near Pasadena, California.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Leger
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Since boulders aren't usually very tall, Leger takes a tough foam pad mat to cushion frequent falls, and climbs with a partner who can act as a spotter. Part of the fun is climbing a route difficult enough that you might fall dozens of times before figuring it out.

On Mars, mountaineering is a bit different. There are no pads or spotters to protect Spirit, so rover drivers must be cautious. Spirit was originally climbing "Husband Hill" via "Cumberland Ridge," but progress was blocked by a dangerous combination of large rocks, steep slopes, and loose sand--all at once. The team identified an alternate approach that contours around the mountain and climbs the West Face--the route that Spirit is now climbing, dubbed the "Ramp Route."

This image shows an aerial view of a vast desert landscape on Earth that is the same brownish red dust color of Mars.  Sandy dune-like features diagonally undulate in a shallow, uniform pattern from the upper left of the image to the lower right.  The upper right of the image shows a grey-blue sky with three wispy clouds.
This view of Earth was taken by a crewmember onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 23, 2003, and features the sandy Namib Desert in Africa.
Image credit: NASA/JSC
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Inspired by Astronauts

Whether or not Spirit ultimately reaches the summit of "Husband Hill" will depend on the difficulty of the terrain between Spirit's current position and the summit. Squyres says, "Mountaineering is not the point of the mission...we're here to do science." No matter how high Spirit climbs over the next few weeks, what the science team and the world can already see of Mars from Spirit's vantage point on the "Columbia Hills" could inspire the human spirit as much as what the Shuttle Columbia crew saw flying above Earth.

During their last mission, Columbia Pilot Willie McCool said, "From our orbital vantage point, we observe an Earth without borders, full of peace, beauty and magnificence, and we pray that humanity as a whole can imagine a borderless world as we see it, and strive to live as one in peace."

The Mars Program salutes the Discovery astronauts and honors the family and friends of the Columbia astronauts as Spirit winds her way up the "Columbia Hills."
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