NASA Mars Rover Sends Color Photos of Red Planet

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 5, 2004
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.

Gusev Crater

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.

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.

Mars Challenge

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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