Mars rover Opportunity hits `a scientific jackpot'

Space: After a near-flawless landing, NASA's newest explorer sends back astonishing images of the red planet.

January 26, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

After executing a nearly flawless landing early yesterday morning, Opportunity, the latest NASA rover to arrive on Mars, began sending back stunning images of an otherworldly landscape the likes of which scientists said they had never seen on the planet.

"I am flabbergasted. I'm astonished. I'm blown away," a bleary-eyed Steve Squyres, the mission's science chief, said at an early morning news conference in California. "I always knew if we went to enough places on Mars we would find something that's truly different."

By successfully joining its twin, Spirit, Opportunity also landed in the history books. Not since NASA's Viking landers touched down in 1976 have two mechanical craft simultaneously explored the surface of the red planet. And never before have there been two mobile robots on Mars.

Opportunity signaled its arrival to flight controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., about 12:05 a.m. EST. "We're on Mars, everybody!" announced Rob Manning, supervisor for the rover entry, descent and landing team.

For several minutes the normally businesslike scientists and engineers erupted in cheers. Team members hugged and high-fived one another as celebrity visitors, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Vice President Al Gore, threaded past flickering computer screens, offering congratulations.

The splashy arrival of the 384-pound robot helped dampen jitters over the recent mechanical problems on Spirit, which began transmitting gibberish Wednesday just as it was about to drill into a Martian rock.

Late yesterday afternoon, engineers said they were closing in on the problem, which they now suspect lies in the craft's software.

Since software is easier to fix from 120 million miles away, they said, they were more confident the robot would eventually resume its mission to find evidence that Mars was once a wetter planet, hospitable to life.

"I think we've got a patient that's well on the way to recovery," said Peter Theisinger, rover project manager.

Opportunity landed at Meridiani Planum, a spot roughly 6,600 miles away from Gusev Crater, where Spirit came down Jan. 3.

Like its twin, Opportunity will spend at least 90 days hunting for signs of water, using tools ranging from a microscope to a diamond-tipped drill.

By the end of its first day on Mars, Opportunity beamed back 132 low-resolution photos of Meridiani Planum, revealing a landscape that bears little resemblance to the four other landing sites that spacecraft have explored in the past 30 years.

Missing are the chunky boulders and other rubble that dominate the photographs snapped by Spirit, NASA's 1997 Pathfinder spacecraft and the twoViking landers.

In an even more startling surprise, Opportunity's first panoramic photo strongly suggests that the rover bounced down inside a crater.

"We have scored a 300 million-mile interplanetary hole in one," Squyres said. "I keep thinking this can't possibly get any better, and it just does."

Scientists said the crater was about 60 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. Lying almost directly in front of the rover near the rim is an outcropping of pale flat rocks that scientists said looks suspiciously like bedrock.

If Opportunity's instruments confirm the hunch, it would be the first time this potentially valuable rock has been encountered on Mars.

"We have a scientific jackpot," said Larry Soderblom, a geologist on the science team.

On Earth, bedrock can be formed by volcanic lava flows or water-deposited sediment. The bedrock could provide direct evidence that water once flowed on Mars.

The other exciting find was what Squyres calls the "strange- looking" soil at the landing site. Opportunity is perched on soil so pristine and powdery that it retains the precise record of nearly everything that touches it. Poring over black-and-white photos yesterday, mission scientists could even pick out the imprint of the air bag's seams.

Scientists are looking forward to examining the soil for another reason. Instruments aboard the Mars Global Surveyor, now orbiting the planet, have pinpointed evidence of an Oklahoma-size deposit of a mineral called gray hematite mixed with the soil.

On Earth, the mineral typically forms in the presence of water.

Already it appears that Opportunity may have an easier time reaching the surface than its twin did after it landed.

Both rovers landed in an air bag-swaddled, three-petaled protective shell.

Once on Mars, the bags deflate and the petals open, providing three possible exit ramps for the rover to reach the surface.

Spirit was hung up for several days by an air bag blocking its forward exit. Opportunity's forward ramp is clear.

And the driving looks much better at Meridiani than at Gusev Crater.

With so few rocks to block its path, "we are going to be able to really motor on this surface," Squyres said.

Based on the initial images, scientists have mapped out a tentative itinerary for Opportunity: First, sniff the soil for signs of hematite, then make a beeline for the suspected Mars bedrock.

But engineers know that the technical problems that have bedeviled Spirit since Wednesday could befall its identical twin.

Spirit did not emerge from its lander until its 12th day on the planet. Opportunity, engineers said, might wait at least that long to dig its six wheels in the soil.

Says Arthur Amador, a JPL mission manager: "We're going to go carefully and methodically."

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