Speaking at a press briefing when the first images of the crater were released Sunday morning, Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for Spirit from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, said the crater looks as if it was tailor-made for the rover.
"Our vehicle was built to drive; our vehicle was built to explore," he said. "We see enough rocks that we can do great science with them and not so many that they are going to get in our way."
Using nine cameras, two spectrometers, and a robotic arm, Spirit will image, analyze, probe, dig, and scrape the rocks and soil that now rest in the crater for signs of past water and life.
Spirit's twin, Opportunity, is scheduled to land in a geologically complex region called Meridiani Planum. The region is believed to contain significant deposits of hematite, a mineral that could have formed as the result of an ancient hot springs. On Earth, hot springs are home to microbial life.
The exuberance at JPL mission control stems partly from the difficulty of getting spacecraft successfully to Mars. In the past, two out of every three missions to the red planet have failed.
The latest apparent failure is the British built Beagle 2 lander, which has been silent since its presumed landing on Christmas Day. Mission scientists have not given up on finding Beagle 2. They're hoping Mars Express will locate the lander later this week when the orbiting mother ship is optimally positioned.
The Japanese-built Nozomi spacecraft launched four years ago on a mission to Mars but was last month placed into a solar orbit after mission controllers were unable to successfully steer it into orbit around Mars.
NASA's Mars Polar Lander was never heard from after it began its descent towards Mars in 1999. Given the difficulty of reaching Mars, NASA officials tempered their optimism about Spirit's chances for success.
"I guess I got quoted a lot saying 'six minutes from hell,'" said Weiler. "It was six minutes from hell, but in this case we said the right prayers and got up to heaven."
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