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Kinked cable crimps Dante's Erebus debut.

Dante faltered at Hades' door. Scientists had hoped the eight-legged, tethered robot would wend its way 230 meters to the bottom of the inner crater of Mt. Erebus, Earth's southernmost active volcano, to sample freshly vented gases and examine a lava lake.

But a broken optical-fiber cable forced researchers atop the 3,790-meter Antarctic peak to abandon their efforts late last week after Dante had barely crept over the rim of the volcano's outer crater.

"We are now calling it off, folding our cards, and heading home," a disappointed William L. ("Red") Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh announced from Erebus' upper flank, where the wind-chill factor hovered around - 55 [degres] C

Nonetheless, team members viewed their effort as anything but a failure. "I think the project has been an overall success: The robot works," said David B. Lavery, telerobotics program manager for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington, D.C.

Many doubted Dante would ever make it near Mt. Erebus this Antarctic summer (SN: 6/6/92, p.376). Whittaker, who conceived the project that pushed the limits of robotics, only began developing Dante a year ago with $2 million from NASA. The space agency wants to use such robots someday to explore the moon and Mars.

In Greek mythology, Erebus is a region of the underworld where dead souls go. Dante Alighieri, a 14th century Italian poet, describes visiting this land in his Divine Comedy.

After a day's delay caused by a small eruption, Dante the robot succeeded in inching 6 meters down a 55-degree slope inside Erebus' outer crater. There it halted.

The robot has two spools at its rear that play out an optical-fiber cable linking Dante's onboard sensors and motors with its "brain," the computers that provide its depth perception and ability to self-navigate. The first spool successfully laid down cable from the team's control shack to the crater rim.

The second spool, which resembles a ball of twine, was to release cable during Dante's descent. That cable proved to have a kink about every 5 meters and apparently broke at one of these kinks.

"The severed nerve cord was enough to bring us down," Whittaker said.

Researchers in the Antarctic did not have the means to repair the break. Team members at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., considered flying a new cable from the United States. But because of the time required - and the limited time their colleagues could remain on Erebus before the onset of harsher weather - the team dropped the idea and began retrieving the robot.

Whither Dante now? Whittaker called the question premature but added, "In my estimation, it's inevitable that we'll be back [at Mt. Erebus]."
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Title Annotation:broken optical-fiber cable prevents Dante robot from exploring inner crater of Mt. Erebus, Antarctica
Author:Young, Patrick
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jan 9, 1993
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