NASA's Mars rover reports landing in Martian crater

Its signal is then lost

contact is possible today

January 04, 2004|By Thomas H. Maugh II and Charles Piller | Thomas H. Maugh II and Charles Piller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NASA's Spirit rover apparently survived its fiery plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere last night, emitting a brief tone at 11:35 p.m. EST indicating that it was bouncing on the surface at its Gusev Crater landing site.

Cheers and clapping erupted in the control room at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as landing manager Rob Manning announced, "We have signs of bouncing on the surface."

But the team lost the signal again as the rover continued to bounce, pointing its small antenna away from the Earth.

JPL officials weren't overly concerned, because they had previously estimated that there was only about a 40 percent chance that they would hear from the craft on landing. Success depended on whether the tiny antenna on the craft's 15-watt transmitter ended up pointing in the general direction of Earth.

NASA's massive antenna farms at Goldstone in the Mojave Desert and in Canberra, Australia, were straining to hear the faint tones emitted by the probe.

In a precisely timed ballet, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter was flying over the Gusev Crater landing site at touchdown time, and it had about the same chance of contacting the rover. It, too, did not receive a signal.

The lack of a signal does not mean that the landing failed, said JPL's Jennifer Trosper, who is in charge of surface operations. It may simply mean that it has taken the craft longer than expected to right itself after the landing.

Surveyor and Odyssey will have more chances for contact today. Later, after Earth has risen in the Mars sky, Spirit will again have the opportunity to communicate directly to Earthbound antennas.

"If we don't hear from Spirit by late Sunday night, there is a high probability of failure," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space sciences. "We will not drag this out for weeks," he said.

"It would wreak havoc on our ability to prepare for the second lander."

That lander, Opportunity, is scheduled to land on Mars on Jan. 24. Scientists say they will try to enhance its chances of survival by using information from Spirit's descent.

Spirit is the most ambitious effort yet to roam the surface of another planet. It is part of a small fleet of spacecraft sent toward Mars in an effort to answer one of the most captivating questions in science: Has there been life on other planets?

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