NASA readies Mars rover to roam

Analysis shows `Spirit' landed on `sweet spot'

January 05, 2004|By Thomas H. Maugh II and Charles Piller | Thomas H. Maugh II and Charles Piller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NASA's Spirit rover completed its first full day on Mars yesterday, sending back black-and-white pictures of its Gusev Crater landing site, the first of a stream of images that are eventually expected to reveal the Martian surface in unprecedented detail.

The rover sent an initial burst of data and pictures back to Earth within hours of its landing Saturday night, then twice communicated with Earth during the long Martian night. Most of the information sent yesterday was technical data. No new images were released beyond the initial 64 taken shortly after landing.

A hurried analysis of the pictures indicated that Spirit had landed within six miles of the center of its elliptical target in the middle of the huge Gusev Crater, a feat that team members compared to threading a needle from 15 miles away.

Researchers were overjoyed by the terrain revealed by the pictures.

"It's a place almost tailor-made for our vehicle," said Steven Squyres of Cornell University, the mission's principal investigator. "It's a glorious crater. We have hit what the science team believes is the scientific sweet spot."

Although controllers do not yet know the precise location of Spirit, a photo of the general area of the landing site previously taken by the Mars Odyssey orbiter indicates it is laced with dark trails formed by dust devils - mini-tornadoes common on the Martian surface. The trails will provide the rover with easy access to the layers of rock underlying the dusty Martian surface.

"What we wanted was some place where the wind ... has cleaned off the rocks for us so we wouldn't be totally occupied with doing that ourselves," Squyres said.

The pictures also showed that the area was littered with medium-size rocks that are ideal for examination by the rover's sophisticated scientific instruments, and few large boulders that could impair its movements.

Shortly after bouncing to its near-perfect landing Saturday evening, Spirit took a series of pictures with its low-resolution navigation camera, sending them back to Earth via Mars Odyssey. It then went into "sleep" mode to preserve its batteries during the frigid Martian night.

The images confirmed that Spirit had survived its "six-minutes-from-hell" descent Saturday evening in near-perfect fashion. It bounced for about a mile before settling down in an upright position.

Mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., woke Spirit up at 2:45 p.m. PST yesterday, shortly after Martian sunrise, by playing the Beatles' "Good Morning, Good Morning."

Yesterday was devoted to making sure the golf cart-size rover was functioning properly, unfolding its high-gain antenna used for direct communications with Earth and taking better pictures of the landing site.

Controllers also wanted to take a closer look at what initially appeared to be a large rock that might have impaired their ability to drive the six-wheeled rover off its platform. They concluded that the object was a dirty air bag - part of the air bag cocoon that cushioned the craft's landing.

Spirit will not roll off the lander platform and begin its scientific studies until at least its ninth day on Mars. Like its sister rover, Opportunity, which is scheduled to land on Mars on Jan. 24, Spirit is expected to roam hundreds of yards from its initial landing point over a period of at least 90 days.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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