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SCIENTISTS DEBATE FATE OF ROBOT INSIDE VOLCANO

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Dante II hung in the balance Wednesday as scientists debated whether to save the $1.7 million robot after it plummeted deeper into the crater of the volcano it explored.

An attempt Tuesday to jerk the 1,700-pound robot by helicopter from its resting spot inside Spurr volcano failed when Dante's power cord snapped, letting it free fall further into the rocky pit.The setback left scientists from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University uncertain of the next step for their disabled machine. One scientist broke his leg while working on the crater rim during the attempted rescue.

Tim Hegadorn, 32, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student, said he slipped on mud and rock, "the nastiest stuff I ever walked in." He sympathized with Dante: "I expect the terrain down there was probably similar."

The eight-legged Dante was damaged Friday when it slipped on rocks while trying to climb out of the crater.

John Bares, a university scientist overseeing the project, said he would confer with university and NASA officials.

The team could try another helicopter airlift or the machine could be abandoned.

"I don't know exactly where to go from here," Bares said, after a day spent removing the robot's generator from the crater rim 6,500 feet up the mountain.

Further attempts to save Dante, he said, would involve sending at least one person into the crater and could entail fixing a helicopter sling to Dante so it could be lifted up.

Ash avalanches and boulder slides are a constant hazard at Spurr, and the robot was nearly hit last week by a rock the size of small refrigerator.

On Tuesday, Dante's half-inch-thick, Kevlar-reinforced power cable snapped when a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter tried to lift the robot by the cord.

The cable served as a tether holding the robot to the crater's rim and as a way for scientists to power and communicate with the robot.