NASA rover sends back 3-D images of Mars site

Photograph shows view of 360 degrees in area where `Spirit' landed

January 06, 2004|By Thomas H. Maugh II and Charles Piller | Thomas H. Maugh II and Charles Piller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NASA's Spirit rover beamed back a three-dimensional, 360-degree view of its Gusev Crater landing site on Mars yesterday, a prelude to the more spectacular high-definition color images expected today.

Yesterday morning's news conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the photograph was revealed, was a scene reminiscent of a 1950s-era movie. Reporters and National Aeronautics and Space Administration team members donned 3-D glasses and jaws dropped as the rocks and depressions just beyond the lander emerged in high relief.

Then a group of Mars-team members displayed two 9-foot-long images of the stereoscopic landscape, an instant mural of discovery.

The most prominent feature in the image is a crater, about 30 feet in diameter and 40 feet to 50 feet north of the rover. Acknowledging the long hours the Spirit team has been working, Steven Squyres of Cornell University, the mission's principal investigator, dubbed the depression Sleepy Hollow and indicated it is likely to be the first destination for the rover.

"It's a window into the interior of Mars," he said. "On the far wall, there is rock exposed, so this may be a chance to see what rock looks like in the upper layers [of the Martian surface]. It's a very exciting feature."

Squyres pointed out a large number of smaller depressions near the landing site, suggesting they might be the results of secondary cratering - material ejected from a large asteroid strike and then falling back to the surface, producing its own craters.

Sleepy Hollow would be about a day's drive away if the team were more experienced at handling Spirit, Squyres said. "But we don't have our Martian driver's license yet, so we are going to take it nice and slow. If it takes a week to get to Sleepy Hollow, that will be fine with me."

The rover will probably make at least one scientific stop along the way. The photos reveal two large rocks along the route, and Spirit will probably stop and analyze their composition.

Sunday "was a good day on Mars," said Matt Wallace, Spirit mission manager. "The good news just keeps on coming."

Like a tourist checking into a resort hotel, Spirit has begun unlimbering its instruments, arranging communications to home, and taking a look around the landing site to get its bearings.

Since arriving on the Martian surface Saturday, everything has checked out perfectly, team members said. All Spirit's instruments are working, good communication links have been established, and the site promises to provide a wealth of scientific details.

"We've demonstrated that we can command the rover" from Earth, Wallace said. "All went well."

Scientists had been particularly concerned about Spirit's Mossbauer spectrometer, a German-built instrument designed to determine the composition of iron-bearing minerals that are difficult to detect by other means.

The instrument was badly shaken during Spirit's launch in June and malfunctioned during the cruise to Mars. Researchers spent a great deal of time during the flight attempting to work around the problem.

When the team confirmed late Sunday that it was working, Squyres said, there was "whooping and hollering" just like there had been in the control room on the night of the landing, "but it was all in German."

The team has a week's worth of preparatory work before the rover can get on with its real mission, which is to move around on the surface and look for signs that water once existed in the crater in large quantities - an indication that life might have existed there.

Controllers will take the first steps in that direction today by ordering the rover to rear up on its hind four wheels so that the front two can be extended from their folded transport position and locked into place.

The team will also set off small explosives to sever some of the cables connecting the rover to its landing platform.

The team is proceeding slowly, and the process will take three days, Wallace said.

Freeing the rover from the lander is crucial, Squyres said. "If we can't get off the lander, we can never get any science done. We can take pictures with the [panoramic camera] until the cows come home, but the scenery is never going to change."

Tom Shain, logistics manager for the mission, said the lab staff was moving forward with a renewed confidence about their future - and high expectations of success for Spirit's twin, Opportunity, which is scheduled to land on Mars on Jan. 24.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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