Millions of Miles from Home, NASA Mars Rover Ready to Roll
PASADENA, California, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, built on Earth, is now sitting on its lander platform some 225 million miles away on Mars while scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) prepare to roll it out onto the surface of the red planet.
The rover landed late Saturday night after a seven month journey and sent a signal back to Earth, touching off a celebration at NASA that caps years of work. "Spirit has told us that it is healthy," said Jennifer Trosper of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Spirit mission manager for operations on Mars' surface.
Jubilation at NASA carried notes of relief as it became apparent that Spirit would not meet the same fate as the British Mars lander Beagle 2, which has failed to send a signal since it arrived on the planet's surface on Christmas Day. European and U.S. spacecraft are attempting to locate the silent lander.
By contrast, NASA's Spirit has transmitted the first color image of Mars taken by its panoramic camera, the highest resolution image ever taken on the surface of another planet.
Spirit succeeded Sunday in finding the Sun with its camera and calculating how to point its main antenna toward Earth by knowing the Sun's position.
The next nine days or more will be spent preparing Spirit to leave its lander platform. The six-wheeled, 400 pound rover will explore the Martian surface to determine if the planet ever had enough water to sustain life.
Spirit will spend the next three months rolling around the dusty, rocky area called Gusev Crater, a 90 mile wide hole in the ground that NASA scientists believe formed three to four billion years ago when an asteroid crashed just south of Mars' equator.
Jim Garvin, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration, already sees evidence of liquid at Gusev Crater. "There's not much doubt," he said Monday, "this site contained a body of liquid water, at least for some amount of time. There's a channel system that drains into it, which probably carried liquid water, or water and ice, into the crater. It's hard to imagine the landscape looking this way unless water was somehow involved," Garvin said.
Spirit's twin robot rover, Opportunity, is expected to reach Mars on January 25 to begin a similar examination of a site on the opposite side of the planet.
When Spirit rolls out into the Gusev Crater, researchers expect it to find sediments nearly 3,000 feet thick. They theorize these sediments were deposited by water and covered by the dust and sand of two billion years that has blown across the crater.
"The Gusev landscape we see today could have been modified by lava, ice, and winds," Garvin said. "Aspects of it could have been formed by standing water, or by intermittent floods."
One clear sign of past water will be in the rocks that may hold certain key minerals. Carrying a specialized suite of tools, Spirit might find evaporites, minerals formed as water dries up, such as gypsum.
Another sign of water will be in the way the sediments are organized, NASA explains. If the sediments were blown in by winds, the layers may be more erratic, to reflect the changing directions of airflow. If they were deposited by water, they are more likely to be layered evenly, one on top of the other in stacks.
The most exciting result, says Garvin, would be proving that liquid water existed at the surface of this site for a long time. "Persistent standing bodies of water are possible habitats for life."
The navigation team placed the rover exactly where scientists wanted it, said Dr. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for the science payload. "We hit the sweet spot. We wanted someplace where the wind had cleared off the rocks for us."
By correlating images taken by Spirit with earlier images from spacecraft orbiting Mars, the mission team says the rover appears to be in a region marked with many bare patches where dust devils have removed brighter dust and left darker gravel behind.
The terrain looks different from any of the sites examined by NASA's three previous successful landers - the two Vikings in 1976 and Mars Pathfinder in 1997.
"Reality has surpassed fantasy. We're like kids in a candy store," said Art Thompson, rover tactical activity leader at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We can hardly wait until we get off the lander and start doing fun stuff on the surface."
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe today announced plans to name the landing site of the Mars Spirit Rover in honor of the astronauts who died in the tragic accident of the Space Shuttle Columbia in February. The area in the vast flatland of the Gusev Crater where Spirit landed this weekend will be called the Columbia Memorial Station.
The rover carried with it from Earth a memorial plaque commemorating Columbia's astronauts and the STS-107 mission, and as NASA team members viewed Mars as Spirit's instruments saw it, the plaque appeared in images returned to Earth.
"During this time of great joy for NASA, the Mars Exploration Rover team and the entire NASA family paused to remember our lost colleagues from the Columbia mission," said O'Keefe. "To venture into space, into the unknown, is a calling heard by the bravest, most dedicated individuals," he said.
NASA's website featuring the Mars rovers has proved popular, attracting 916 million hits since Saturday. "The portal was designed technically and graphically to enable NASA to communicate directly with members of the public, especially young people," said Dunbar. "It's a key element of NASA's mission to inspire the next generation of explorers as only NASA can."
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