Picture from Mars is `spectacular'

NASA's rover sends home brilliant photos of surface

January 07, 2004|By Thomas H. Maugh II and Charles Piller | Thomas H. Maugh II and Charles Piller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NASA's Spirit rover has sent back the clearest, sharpest picture ever taken on the surface of another planet, a "spectacular" postcard from Mars that is two to three times as sharp as similar photos from the earlier Viking and Pathfinder missions.

The photo shows about one-eighth of the Gusev Crater region around the lander, but it is already providing researchers a great deal more information than the black-and-white images returned a day earlier.

It "is spectacular, but this is not the best this camera can do," said James Bell of Cornell University, who was in charge of the camera's development.

The panoramic camera will provide high-definition pictures equivalent to those seen now on high-priced television sets, and it also will provide 3-D images.

The picture, a mosaic of 12 individual images, has yielded some surprises, said Cornell's Steven Squyres, the mission's principal investigator. "We're trying to puzzle it out scientifically."

The photo reveals a broad variety of rocks, but "the rock distribution is markedly different from what we have seen anywhere else" on Mars, Squyres said. "There are far fewer large rocks."

The surfaces of the rocks are remarkably smooth, he said, and the shapes are quite varied - some of them round and some quite angular. "The way in which this tends to come about geologically is if you have a very strong, very fine-grained rock that gets broken up by some process - we don't know what yet - and then is exposed for a long period of time to sandblasting," he said.

Most of the rocks have dark tails of debris, a shadow zone downwind from the rocks produced by the near constant air flow. "We've landed in a fairly windy place," he said. Squyres speculated that the dark areas might be largely free of the fine dust that covers most of the Martian surface, thus exposing the rock underneath.

The horizon in the photo is 3 to 3.5 miles from Spirit. The mesa in the background is farther away, perhaps as much as 20 miles, but it is several hundred yards high and thus rises above the horizon. The largest rocks in the foreground are about 8 inches in diameter.

A large depression on the right-hand side is probably similar to the one researchers dubbed Sleepy Hollow. And the terrain appears to be scattered with impact craters.

The most mysterious part of the landscape, however, is at the rover's feet - the area where its air bags were retracted after landing.

It looks to researchers as if there is a layer of "strangely cohesive" material that breaks away in pieces. "It's not like anything I have seen before. ... It looks like mud, but it can't be mud" because there is no free water, Squyres said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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