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NASA plans cuts, then spares Mars rovers

Scientists behind the solar-powered robots say they planned to retire Spirit and Opportunity amid budget cuts. A day later, NASA quashes that idea.

Space scientists and the Mars rover-loving public had quite a scare this week.

On Monday, scientists behind the solar-powered rovers Spirit and Opportunity said that they were planning to put the robots to sleep because of a NASA recommendation to trim $4 million from the program's budget. But a day later, the space agency said in a statement that neither of the robots would be shut down because of budget cuts, according to the Associated Press.

Taxpayer outcry must have been strong.

It's easy to see why: In their four years exploring the Red Planet, Spirit and Opportunity have produced scientific discoveries that have ignited the public imagination. For example, they've produced geologic evidence that water once flowed near or on the surface of Mars.

But operating rovers can be a pricey venture. Spirit and Opportunity were originally planned for missions lasting only three months, at a total cost of $820 million. Now, NASA pays about $20 million annually to keep the robots running, according to the AP.

Still, the cuts would have been a devil's bargain. NASA was trying to trim spending to cover the overrun costs of sending a new Hummer-sized rover to Mars in 2009, according to the AP. So the question remains: How will NASA shift its budget to launch its newfangled rover and keep up the twins? A request for comment from NASA was not immediately returned.