for National Geographic News
NASA's Mars rover transmitted its first color photographs early this morning from the red planet after a successful landing late Saturday night. The high-resolution photographs showcase the Martian landscape from the rover's landing site in Gusev Crater.
Cocooned in a cushion of airbags, Spirit tumbled to a halt on Mars late Saturday night and transmitted a signal of its safe arrival. Hours later it beamed black and white images of its surroundings to ecstatic mission controllers.
"I'm not usually speechless, but I feel speechless tonight," Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science, told reporters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, shortly after the rover landed on Mars at approximately 11:45 p.m. ET.
The U.S. $400 million rover Spirit endured what Weiler earlier called "six minutes from hell" as it opened a parachute, jettisoned a heat shield, fired retrorockets, and then bounced and rolled to an on-target stop in Gusev Crater.
Mission controllers erupted in cheers when they received a signal from the rover that it was intact and right side up. About three hours later the rover beamed its first images to Earth, relaying them through NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.
Over the next week, the golf-cart sized Spirit will prepare to roll off its lander platform and then will spend at least 90 days exploring Gusev Crater.
"We've got many more steps to go before this mission is completely over, but we've retired an awful lot of risk with this landing," Pete Theisinger, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Project at JPL, said at Saturday night's briefing.
Spirit traveled 302 million miles (487 million kilometers) to reach Mars after its June 10, 2003, launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Spirit's twin, Opportunity, was launched July 7, 2003, and is on course for a January 24 landing on the opposite side of Mars.
The specially-equipped robots were sent to Mars to further investigate the possibility that the cold and dry red planet was once a warmer and wetter place, with liquid water flowing on the surface and perhaps harboring life.
NASA selected Spirit's landing site within Gusev Crater based on evidence from spacecraft in orbit around Mars that the crater may be an ancient lakebed. A long, deep valley apparently carved by water leads into the crater.
Gusev itself is about the size of Connecticut, possibly created by the impact of a comet or asteroid three or four billion years ago. It lies just south of the equator and is currently experiencing the Martian summer.
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