- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — NASA’s Opportunity rover zipped its first pictures of Mars to Earth yesterday, delighting and puzzling scientists just hours after the spacecraft bounced to a landing.

The pictures show a surface smooth and dark red in some places, and strewn with fragmented slabs of light bedrock in others. Bounce marks left by the rover’s air bags when it landed were clearly visible.

“I am flabbergasted. I am astonished. I am blown away. Opportunity has touched down in an alien and bizarre landscape,” said Cornell University’s Steven Squyres, the mission’s main scientist. “I still don’t know what we’re looking at.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began receiving the first of dozens of black-and-white and color images from Opportunity about four hours after its flawless landing. At the time, Mars was 124 million miles from Earth.

Mission members hooted and hollered as the images splashed on a screen in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was there with his wife, Maria Shriver, to watch the drama unfold, and walked through mission control shaking hands with the scientists.

“The pictures just blow me away. We’ve certainly not been to this place before,” deputy project manager Richard Cook said.

Opportunity plunged into the Martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph and bounced down to the surface just six minutes later, swaddled in protective air bags. It hit with a force estimated to be two to three times that of Earth’s gravity. Engineers had designed it to withstand as much as 40 times Earth’s gravity, said Chris Jones, director of flight projects at JPL.

The six-wheeled rover landed at 12:05 a.m. in Meridiani Planum, thought to be the smoothest, flattest spot on Mars. Opportunity lies 6,600 miles and halfway around the planet from where its twin, Spirit, landed Jan. 3.

Yesterday, NASA said Opportunity was in excellent health, and Spirit was on the mend after serious software problems had hobbled it.

Initial analysis of the images suggested that Opportunity landed in a shallow crater roughly 66 feet across. Its low rim shouldn’t block the rolling robot, once it gets going, Mr. Squyres said.

Opportunity could roll off its lander in 10 to 14 days, mission manager Arthur Amador said. Opportunity’s proposed targets include a larger crater, maybe 500 feet across.

The rover’s ramp off its lander appeared unobstructed, unlike that of the Spirit rover, said Matt Wallace, another of the mission managers. Spirit had to use an alternate ramp because a deflated air bag blocked its safest route to the Martian surface.

Together, the twin 384-pound rovers make up $820 million mission to seek out geologic evidence that Mars once was a wetter world perhaps capable of sustaining life. NASA launched Spirit on June 10 and Opportunity on July 7. Each carries nine cameras and six scientific instruments.

Hours after Opportunity’s landing, NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe broke open a bottle of champagne and toasted the mission.

“As the old saying goes, it’s far better to be lucky than good, but you know, the harder we work the luckier we seem to get,” Mr. O’Keefe said, adding “no one dared hope” that both rover landings would be so successful.

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