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NASA Extends Rover Occupation of Mars 206

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the wait-till-they-try-to-occupy-us dept.
iocat writes "Reuters reporting that NASA is extending the Rover missions on Mars by another five months. However, they point out that while the rovers look poised to greatly exceed their planned life cycle, they could basically die at any time. Still, it will be cool to see a little more exploration."
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NASA Extends Rover Occupation of Mars

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  • Almost first post (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Pi_0's don't shower (741216) <ethan@isp.northweste r n . e du> on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:27PM (#8864104) Homepage Journal
    I wonder how much terrain these rovers can explore in 5 months, or if they're basically useless because of range limitations?
    • Re:Almost first post (Score:5, Informative)

      by Jott42 (702470) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:43PM (#8864303)
      If memory serves me, they have a range of 30-75 meters /day, after the recent sofware upgrade. Which would give a maximum distance of over 11km, given that they dont find anything interesting on they way and starts investigating it.
    • Re:Almost first post (Score:5, Interesting)

      by AKAImBatman (238306) <.akaimbatman. .at. .gmail.com.> on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:45PM (#8864314) Homepage Journal
      The difficulty is in their solar panels. Eventually they collect so much dust that they don't generate enough power. Also, the rovers stay very still at night to conserve power.

      Interestingly enough, the engineers nearly had an RTG working for the Rovers. Unfortunately, the outcry about Cassini pretty much killed that. It's too bad, because with an RTG, the power source would outlast the rest of the components by some 50 years!
      • Re:Almost first post (Score:5, Informative)

        by Sgs-Cruz (526085) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @06:05PM (#8864474) Homepage Journal
        For those who, like me, aren't astrophysicists and had to look up an RTG, it's a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator [daviddarling.info]. Basically a nuclear power source for the rover.
      • The difficulty is in their solar panels.

        No. According to recent briefings it is much more likely that other parts will fail before the solar panels become useless.

      • If dust buildup on the solar panels is such a potential problem, why didn't NASA design wipers for them? Just make sure you use 'em before there's no power to run the wiper motors. 'Seems like a simple solution to me.
    • Re:Almost first post (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Mal-2 (675116) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:46PM (#8864330) Homepage Journal
      Even with range limitations they're hardly useless. Both rovers landed in relatively fertile areas for exploration, and Opportunity would have still been a big success even if it proved unable to leave the crater it landed in. The main thing that comes to my mind is to find the edges of the ancient ocean and explore there -- partly because tidepools on Earth are teeming with life, and partly because shallow water means fossils (if present) won't be buried very deep. I noticed very early on that the rocks Opportunity was looking at looked an awful lot like tidepool rocks, at least ones from the eastern Pacific shore (the only ones I've seen firsthand). I knew there was good reason for NASA to be REALLY damn sure before announcing there was a lot of water on Mars at one time, but I pretty well was convinced as soon as I saw those distinctive wormholed rocks.

      However, it looks like their lifespan will be determined by a few factors, some of which are within human control and some which are not:

      1. Dust storms. Seems to me one good one would pretty well take a rover out of service from dust buildup on the panels alone.

      2. Equipment failure, particularly the "always on and draining power" type. One has already made Opportunity a little bit gimpy, but I doubt a single such failure would be fatal. Cumulatively, several would just be too much to bear.

      3. Shorter and/or darker Martian days as the seasons and distance from the sun change. This won't take out a rover outright of course, but they could compound the prior two problems. At least these events are predictable.

      4. The Martian Defense System finally tracks the rovers down and explodes them. Turns out the reason they didn't shoot the first time is they thought it was just another shipment of punching balloons for their nitrous oxide-fueled nightlife. Once they realize we sent ROVERS and not RAVERS, they're going to be mighty pissed off.

      Mal-2
    • Is it "terrain" on Mars? Terra is Latin for Earth. What do you call land on Mars?

  • by Dark Lord Seth (584963) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:27PM (#8864109) Journal

    It's "liberation" instead, people.

  • Occupation? (Score:4, Funny)

    by pldms (136522) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:28PM (#8864112)
    It's an occupation of Mars now? I thought the were just tourists.
    • No they are not occupation forces they are "Illegal Aliens" and shortly will be damanding status and citizenship. Besides they are just there to do work the Martians don't want to do. I hear they just joined Aztlan?? [azteca.net]

  • by PIPBoy3000 (619296) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:28PM (#8864122)
    "However, while Spirit is past its 'warranty', we look forward to continued discoveries by both rovers in the months ahead."

    Maybe they should have gotten that rust-proof coating after all.
    • > Maybe they should have gotten that rust-proof coating after all.

      You must mean "dust-proof coating". Given that there is no water on Mars and almost no oxygen, rust would not be much of a problem.
      • You must mean "dust-proof coating". Given that there is no water on Mars and almost no oxygen, rust would not be much of a problem.

        Actually, Mars is red precisely because of rust - iron oxide. Quite a bit of the dust, particularly the hematite-bearing stuff at the Opportunity site, is composed of iron oxides - the dust is rust!

        Incidentally, it's suspected that the reason there's not significant molecular oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is precisely because it's been locked up in the iron-rich surface.

      • No water [esa.int] on Mars [bbc.co.uk]? What rock have you been living under the last couple of years? No offense, but that remark just seemed off whack considering the recent discoveries.
  • unmanned missions (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Stargoat (658863) <stargoat@gmail.com> on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:29PM (#8864130) Journal
    Unmanned missions are great. Humans can run out of food and air, and get tired and homesick. Robots can run basically forever, until something breaks or they run out of juice. If these things prove 1/50 as durable as Galileo did, they'll provide science more than we ever could have hoped for.
    • Re:unmanned missions (Score:5, Interesting)

      by morcheeba (260908) * on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:45PM (#8864318) Journal
      I hate to argue with your logic, but here goes:

      Robots can run basically forever, until something breaks or they run out of juice.
      Somehow running out of this consumable is better than a human running out of their consumables (food and air)? If you want to be accurate, there are mechanisms for both to regenerate these consumables -- solar cells and plants.

      One unique thing about people (besides their intelligence) is their self-healing characteristics ... if a robot gets a little hole in a hydraulic tube, it'll leak until it's empty. A human would clot that blood and carry on. If a human breaks a leg, you can bet they'd figure out a way to complete the mission with just one leg... I wouldn't give a robot those odds, even if they lost only one of six legs.

      But, I agree.. unmanned missions are great, just for totally different reasons: low cost and hence, the ability to many missions to many different areas, each with new instruments designed to test theorys proposed by the results of previous missions. A human mission would blow the whole budget with just one trip.
      • My take on that would be that unmanned missions are great to chart the new territory, to indicate which parts of Mars are most interesting to visit by much more flexible human explorers. Thus making sure that the high cost of a manned mission is not wasted by landing in the (scientifically) wrong spot..
    • Re:unmanned missions (Score:5, Informative)

      by anzha (138288) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:47PM (#8864333) Homepage Journal

      If these things prove 1/50 as durable as Galileo did

      If I may extract something I read from a post on Usenet a few years ago by a real astronomer (Frank Crary) about Galileo:

      JPL and NASA say that Galileo accomplished 80% of its science goals, and they got that number (as I understand it) by going through the list of science goals, giving each a yes/no value, and dividing the number of yes's by the number of items. Usually, it isn't that simple. There is, ``yes, but not as well as we wanted'',``definitely yes, but we could have done better'', ``no but we still got some good data along those lines'', etc. Nor were all the goals of equal value, although you could argue endlessly about which were worth more than others. Then you get into the never-never land of things that were not on that list. I'm fairly sure that magnetometer data on the existence of an ocean on Europa wasn't on the list, and I'm quite sure that similar data on an ocean within Callisto definitely wasn't (just to use one example I'm familiar with.) Often, when you observe something, you discover something you did not expect to find. In several cases, Galileo has done that. Would there have been more unexpected discoveries if the high gain antenna had opened? Yes, definitely. But how many and how important? How can you attach a number to something like that? I would say that Galileo is a success, but not a complete success, and that the sum total of the scientific results is between 50 and 100% of what it might have achieved. I don't know, and I don't even know how to figure out, where between 50 and 100% the ``real'' value is.

      That's from here [google.com].

      Two notes.

      First being that Galileo didn't provide more science than we hoped for. In many ways, it provided a lot less than we hoped for. I'm not calling it a failure, BTW.

      Secondly, be careful whatcha say online...it might come back to haunt ya years down the line. ;)

      • You certainly did extract :) . I was commenting on Galileo's durability, not necessarily its scientific contributions. There were problems with its antenna, and programming as well (iirc). But imagine if the rovers can hang on for another six months or more. Who knows. Maybe they can turn up fossilize life or something equally cool.
    • manned missions (Score:4, Insightful)

      by kippy (416183) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:47PM (#8864340)
      Unmanned missions are great.

      So Are manned ones in the right context like Mars.

      Humans can run out of food and air, and get tired and homesick.

      On Mars humans can make their own air water and food provided a power source like a portable nuclear reactor and the air and ground around them. It's called living in-situ. As long as you don't send flakes, the homesickness isn't an issue. They're allowed to sleep and would have more waking time than the rovers so I wouldn't worry about them getting "tired".

      Robots can run basically forever, until something breaks or they run out of juice.

      You just contradicted yourself there.

      If these things prove 1/50 as durable as Galileo did, they'll provide science more than we ever could have hoped for.

      Perhaps but humans on the surface would have been able to work faster and smarter these probes. Galileo was well suited to its mission and a human would not have been. In the case of Mars, humans are much better suited.
    • Humans can run out of food and air, and get tired and homesick. Robots can run basically forever, until something breaks or they run out of juice.

      Not to mention that we don't have to bother bringing them back at the end of the mission.

  • Wow (Score:4, Funny)

    by Auckerman (223266) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:29PM (#8864131)
    Who would have thought they would extend it again [slashdot.org] this soon after extending it the first time?
  • Excellent! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by qualico (731143) <worldcouchsurfer@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:31PM (#8864152) Journal
    Its always good for future missions if the current ones exceed expectations.

    Looking at Mars, now a distant orange glow in the sky, it amazes me that we have intelligence there.

    Good job NASA.
    • Looking at Mars, now a distant orange glow in the sky, it amazes me that we have intelligence there

      Uh-hu.

      Too bad we don't have any down here.
    • What's good about it?

      It's a bloody rock far away. The money spent on this NASA PR stunt would have been better spent elsewhere.
  • by morcheeba (260908) * on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:31PM (#8864154) Journal
    This was posted on JPL's rover site [nasa.gov] on Thursday. It's got a lot more info.
  • Occupation? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by The_K4 (627653) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:31PM (#8864156)
    The durration of their "Occupation" isn't changing. They are there to die and be buried in dust. Their operation limetime has been extended!
    • They will die and be buried in the dust or they will return home in coffins!

      Sorry , which occupation were we talking about?

      The Iraqi Information Minister.
  • Did they decide to extend the mission because people love following it and want to keep it going? Or are they extending it because they haven't found anything "big" to report on yet?

    Whatever happens, I think they've found a lot of useful data that will take months to analyze. Hopefully they'll have continued success for as long as they keep the mission going. I look forward to seeing the final analyses from these observations.

  • Duplicate? (Score:3, Informative)

    by WayneConrad (312222) * <(wconrad) (at) (yagni.com)> on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:32PM (#8864167) Homepage

    For more comments, see this article [slashdot.org] from the 11th.

  • Free MARS! (Score:2, Funny)

    by xmorg (718633)
    End the occoupation of mars! We are the ALIENS HERE, violating the privacy of our neighbors by sending back constant images of their sacred homeland. this calus discregard for intergalactice rights is appauling!!!
  • Rivers? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Unnngh! (731758)
    From the article:

    NASA said it would spend $15 million more to keep the rivers exploring the planet's surface through September.

    A bit optimistic about the discovery of water on Mars, aren't we?

  • Oh? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Ensign Regis (249331)
    Were we planning to send them back at some point?
  • by kaltkalt (620110) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:40PM (#8864267)
    wouldn't it make sense to initially plan the mission for as long as the rovers remain operational, however long that may be?
    • wouldn't it make sense to initially plan the mission for as long as the rovers remain operational, however long that may be?

      No, because then the budget would have been too high and the project never would have been funded in the first place. The MER team needed to propose a budget to NASA that was reasonable, so they chose a mission length that was long enough to reach their science goals - 3 months - and then did their best to engineer rovers that could last 2-3 times as long if they're lucky.
    • wouldn't it make sense to initially plan the mission for as long as the rovers remain operational, however long that may be?

      Ideally, yes. However, NASA has limited resources within which to work. In order to get funding approved, NASA missions need to have a dollar figure attached to them such as an N month mission for X billion dollars. Also, every mission which is ongoing requires overhead in the form of personnel, office space, communications channels, etc. Every engineer dedicated to a Mars missio
    • All systems have an expected lifespan... how long until something breaks in a critical way. So, you lowball that number to get a minimum # of days that you can reasonably trust the system, and then prioritize/sequence the events to happen in that time.

      If you get bonus days, cool... then the lower prio stuff gets done. But you'd hate to have the "detect life" function scheduled for day 300 and have the batteries run out on 298...
    • wouldn't it make sense to initially plan the mission for as long as the rovers remain operational, however long that may be?

      This has to do with funding issues and political issues. Both are exteremely complex, and you'll just have to take my word for it.

      That being said, it was unlikely taht'd we'd be denied funding at the levels we've requested. We took great pains to reduce the cost in many many ways.

      Also it was hihgly uncertain whether or not the rovers would even survive impact, much less 90 sol
  • occupation (Score:2, Funny)

    by mikeg22 (601691)
    I wonder how long until the native get restless, and we get the Martian equivalent of Al'Sadr resisting the occupation?
  • by Steve the Rocket Sci (770940) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:44PM (#8864305)
    Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has done it again, it would seem. When the Voyager 1 and 2 missions were launched in 1977, they estimated that they would only last until the encounter with Saturn roughly four years later. Now, in 2004, they are still returning useful data, at a distance of over 90 AU from the Sun (in comparison, Pluto is only 40 AU from it). Sure, they had their problems during the mission, but it looks like Spirit and Opportunity may share a similar quality construction. It's definite that they won't last 27 years, but with how well they are functioning, I think the only limit will be the Martian dust collecting on their solar panels. When they Next Generation Rover lands on Mars in the latter part of this decade, it will hopefully use nuclear power, and overcome this obstacle.
    • Rather than going nuclear, maybe there is an ingenious way to clear the dust off their solar panels, thus extending their useful lifespan indefinitely. I can't imagine there isn't a solution to that problem... maybe something as "simple" as the ability to rotate the panels into a 90-degree position and then shake. Sure seems much simpler than engineering a nuclear based solution.
      • by silentbozo (542534) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @06:03PM (#8864463) Journal
        Actually, the nuclear based solution IS the simplest. It's nothing more than a small mass of isotope, a thermocouple, and a pair of wires. It's certainly simpler than a pair of solar panels, or the gyrations you'd need to go through to get rid of the dust coating (electrostatic attraction probably is the factor here.) The Voyager series of probes use these radioisotope-powered thermocouples, and look how long their active life has been.
      • I remember reading about NASA contemplating some sort of 'blower' device be installed on the rovers. It was cancelled as it would have added more complexity and weight to the system. NASA determined it would be cheaper just to increase the dimensions of the solar panels, thus providing more juice for when they start to get dusty.
    • by El_Smack (267329) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @06:12PM (#8864569)
      I think the only limit will be the Martian dust collecting on their solar panels.

      Maybe NASA can cut a deal with the DOJ to go easy on Martha Stewart in return for her help on this. If anyone could find a simple, yet attractive solution it's her. Recycle the impact ballons into attractive doilies for the panels or something.

      Or even better, get the Anal Retentive Carpenter from SNL to make a nice "Solar Panel Cozy" for it.
    • Is there any reason they couldn't have put "wind shield wipers" on the solar panels to occasionally clean the panels? Surely the power required to wipe once every X months would be outweighed by the extra power you would get from dust removal?

  • Software Issues (Score:5, Informative)

    by QuantumFTL (197300) * <justin DOT wick AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @05:55PM (#8864405)
    All the scientists here at JPL are very happy to see that we'll be getting more science, however one of the issues is that we're going to be moving to a less efficient planning cycle, planning for two days per rover at a time. Also it will all be being done on earth time, which is nice for scientists, however it means things have to be planned very far in advance.

    Also one of the problems we are experiencing is that a lot of the mission software was originally designed to only run at JPL on our computing environment, and is very difficult to take back to home institutions because it is so specialized.

    I'm currently working on making the Science Activity Planner (the tool used by all scientists to do high level planning before they start sequencing) work collaboratively over the web. It's exciting because we're dramatically increasing the amount of people who can participate in high level planning. You can grab the public version, called Maestro, here [telascience.org].

    One of the other challenges is the bandwidth and latency associated with transfering autogenerated data products (imagery etc) to all of our satalite institutions. I'm currently working on ways to reduce the necessary bandwidth but without lossy compression there's only so much one can do.

    Anyways, this part of the mission will test out a paradigm known as "Distributed Mission Operations". You can download a paper written by my supervisor about how this was used on Pathfinder here [nasa.gov].

    Future mars missions will last far too long to bring scientists away from their home institutions and pay for temporary housing etc (which is a significant cost). Scientists want to be with their collegues and families during the long periods of exploration.

    Hopefully this will prove that it is both feasible and desireable. There are several studies going on about this, but I'm not aware of any relevant links.

    Cheers,
    Justin Wick
    Science Activity Planner Developer
    Mars Exploration Rovers
    • by kitzilla (266382) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {gorfrepap}> on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @06:08PM (#8864519) Homepage Journal
      Justin, who names the rocks? You guys are clearly having too much fun in that department.

      How about letting Slashdotters name one? C'mon -- nobody will notice. It's just us geeks here.

      From a future JPL release:

      The rover Opportunity started sol 365 this morning with a quick brush-off of the rock known as "Linux Rules." Later today, Opportunity will turn its attention to another feature, a dull-looking boulder called "SCO Drools."

      • Re:Software Issues (Score:4, Interesting)

        by QuantumFTL (197300) * <justin DOT wick AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @08:18PM (#8865579)
        Justin, who names the rocks? You guys are clearly having too much fun in that department.

        Actually, my friend Merideth considers herself to be the feature-naming goddess for Spirit, so if /.ers will reply to this post with possible names, I'll put in one of the highest moderated ones for consideration.

        No promises though :)

        Cheers,
        Justin
        • Mozilla! (Score:4, Interesting)

          by njchick (611256) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @11:07PM (#8866068) Journal
          Mozilla is red like Mars. Mozilla is strong like a rock. Scientists know Mozilla. Mozilla will go to Mars, and followers of Mammon will cower in horror :-)
        • FireFox (for a red rock)

          Solaris (for a flat reflective rock)

          HAL2000 (for that rock that looks like an IBM mainframe... wait a moment, that is an IBM mainframe)

        • Name a rock, 'Tux' (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Megaport (42937) on Thursday April 15, 2004 @02:22AM (#8866903)
          Actually, my friend Merideth considers herself to be the feature-naming goddess for Spirit, so if /.ers will reply to this post with possible names, I'll put in one of the highest moderated ones for consideration.

          Hi Justin,
          How about we get the ball rolling by naming a rock 'Tux', after the Linux mascot penguin?

        • Re:Software Issues (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Dirtside (91468)
          Well, given the forum, here's some ideas:

          - Beowulf
          - Soviet Russia
          - Natalie
          - Dupe (if you find two adjacent rocks that are extremely similar)
          - Profit
          - Overlord

          I think that covers the bulk of common /. humor. :)
        • If you call one "Baloo", you immediatly have a great song - bare neccesities - to start investigating it:


          Look for the bare necessities
          The simple bare necessities
          Forget about your worries and your strife
          I mean the bare necessities
          Old Mother Nature's recipes
          That brings the bare necessities of life

          Wherever I wander, wherever I roam
          I couldn't be fonder of my big home
          The bees are buzzin' in the tree
          To make some honey just for me
          When you look under the rocks and plants
          And take a glance at the fancy ants
          Then m
      • Rock Names! (Score:3, Interesting)

        by efuseekay (138418)
        Here is my list (they are even slightly descriptive)

        1. First Post
        2. Troll
        3. Hot Grits
        4. The Insensitive Clod
        5. Anonymous Coward

    • One of the other challenges is the bandwidth

      Since MEX does not need to service Beagle II communication requirements, have there been talks with ESA about getting MEX to help getting MER data to Earth? It has already been shown that it can be done, why don't we hear more about MEX being used?

    • it's too bad we couldn't do a distributed computing settup for your data, like SETI. I'd be glad to donate the cpu cycles in my office.

  • I wonder what could be done with them when they do fail?

    my top picks in no particular order:
    1.) Auction them off on Ebay (like that channel drill) and make the buyer pick em up. that may help finace the manned mars mission goal ... Russions pickup worlds most expensive a door stop...

    2.) Call AAA for a tow, membership has its rewards.

    3.) File insurance clames on the loss. Perhaps NASA could cite water damage.

    4.) But probably the best use, 3 words, "interstellar p0rn server". Lets "spread"
  • by Dr. Mojura (584120) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @06:06PM (#8864490)
    while the rovers look poised to greatly exceed their planned life cycle, they could basically die at any time.

    Kinda like Dick Clark?
  • by BRSQUIRRL (69271) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @06:10PM (#8864536)
    Every day or so, I head over to this site [nasa.gov] to check out the latest images. Some of the high-res color photos look like something I could have shot with my digital camera out in the desert somewhere, but then I remember: they were taken on ANOTHER FREAKING PLANET. It really is a amazing thing to be alive to see. The folks at NASA and the JPL should be proud of themselves.
  • Why do I have these mental images of Huey and Dewey [imdb.com] wandering around, planting trees...?
  • by Pvt_Waldo (459439) on Wednesday April 14, 2004 @06:38PM (#8864806)
    Personally I'm sort of tired of all the "cute" stuff. Like the wakup music and the rock names.

    It's like reading a wedding announcement or something. "And the chief scientist wore a stunning black outfit, and his research maids wore matching green shirts with long sleeves rolled up. Custom pencils were used by all. The guests were delighted to see palm pilots made available for everyone, each customized with a charming orange Mars theme!"

  • MARS - Martian insurgents have taken Europe's Beagle 2 lander hostage, MartianTV reported, in retaliation for the United States' refusal to leave the region unoccupied...

    ...yea, it's time for bed...
  • /i>"NASA Extends Rover Occupation of Mars"

    The director of NASA, however, assures us that Mars will revert to it's own sovereignty by September 30th. An unnamed United Worlds representative noted that "it's going to be very hard to hold Martian elections by that date, and NASA seems unprepared to set up an interim government which the average Martian can put his faith in."

    Russian scientists recently announced a humanitarian aid mission could be active on Mars in 10 years, but Russian officials wer
  • When Bush saw the the Martian pictures of the desert, he thought NASA was helping him in Iraq. Then he ordered NASA to stay longer there!
  • The Russians kept their lunar rover moving for almost a year, partly because it used nuclear power rather than the less reliable solar power. NASA's Galileo and Cassini probes also used nuclear due the weak sunlight in the out solar system and decade- long missions. These probes almost were not launched due to environomentalist fears that batteries would leak into earth's atmosphere in the event of an launch accident.

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." -- Bertrand Russell

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