- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Fresh from being given a clean bill of health, the Spirit rover drilled into its first rock on the surface of Mars, NASA scientists said yesterday.

A tool equipped with small, diamond-shaped heads cut 2.7 millimeters deep into a tiny area of a sharply angled rock dubbed Adirondack, said Stephen Gorevan, a scientist handling some of Spirit’s workload.

“We made some history here. We put the first planned hole on Mars,” he said.

The circular hole, measuring about 45 millimeters wide, could give scientists clues to Mars’ geologic past.

“The rock gave us a lot of resistance,” Mr. Gorevan said. “We needed three hours to go this deep.”

Five weeks after arriving on Mars, NASA’s Spirit rover also is ready to roll over the Red Planet’s rocky soil on a meandering journey that could last a month and cover hundreds of feet.

Scientists planned for Spirit to begin rolling this weekend after it wraps up its rock analysis.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration cured Spirit of the computer problems that had stalled it on Mars for more than two weeks, interrupting its half of a mission to seek evidence the planet once was wetter and hospitable to life.

Its twin rover, Opportunity, landed on the other side of Mars.

“I think I can say this morning with as much certainty as we can say anything here that our patient is healed,” Spirit mission manager Jennifer Trosper said Friday at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Engineers deleted files from Spirit’s flash memory and then reformatted it, ending two-and-a-half weeks of “crisis mode.”

Miss Trosper called the long-distance repair job nerve-racking.

“But in the end the spacecraft did exactly what we wanted it to do, and it performed perfectly and it’s in great health right now,” she said.

NASA also demonstrated that Spirit can establish two-way communications with Earth using Europe’s Mars Express satellite as a relay. Spirit and Opportunity also can communicate through NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor orbiters, as well as directly with Earth.

Opportunity has done some driving of its own, traveling to a rock outcrop that scientists want the rover to study in detail, said mission manager Matt Wallace. Engineers worked to compensate for wheel slippage in the dry Martian sand.

NASA wants Opportunity to study fine-scaled layering in the outcrop that the rover spied previously. Scientists say the layers could have been laid down in water. If so, they would provide the kind of geologic evidence the $820 million mission was designed to find.

Opportunity likely will spend several more weeks inside the 72-foot diameter crater in which it landed, studying the outcrop and then turning to the rust-colored soil beneath its six wheels.

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