- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Thrilled by the apparently flawless landing of the Spirit rover on Mars, NASA scientists pored over photos and other information and awaited a stream of even more tantalizing data as they worked on the days-long process of getting the robot ready to roll.

Spirit made a nerve-racking but safe landing on Mars late Saturday on what scientists believe is the rocky bed of an ancient lake that once might have harbored life.

Three hours later, the six-wheeled rover began zipping the first black-and-white images of its surroundings to Earth, 106 million miles distant.

“It’s a big step forward for all humanity. Now we have another rover on another planet, exploring a new world. What more could you ask?” said Charles Elachi, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The first images from Spirit showed a flat, wind-scoured plain peppered with small rocks. The scene enthused scientists, eager to send the rover prospecting among the rocks for evidence that the landing site once was covered with water.

“Home, sweet home,” said Steve Squyres, the mission’s lead scientist. “This is our new neighborhood. … We hit the sweet spot.”

NASA expected Spirit’s first color images to be transmitted to Earth late yesterday or early today, relayed by a second spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet.

Meanwhile, mission members worked to pinpoint where Spirit made its apparently flawless landing.

“Sometimes it’s good to be lucky,” Mr. Squyres said.

The $820 million NASA Mars Exploration Rover project also includes a twin golf cart-sized rover, Opportunity. That robot is set to reach the opposite side of Mars from its sibling on Jan. 24.

The dozens of initial, low-resolution photos show Spirit landed upright, level and facing south on a flat stretch of Gusev Crater. Scientists believe the Connecticut-sized basin once contained a brimming lake.

As early as today, Spirit could be told to raise itself up — a two-day process — and extend its front legs. It will take nine to 10 days before the six-wheeled robot is ready to roll off its lander and begin roaming Mars.

There were a few minor concerns about the mission. Scientists were trying to determine whether a dark object lodged against one corner of the lander was a rock that might block the rover once it’s ready to roll onto the ground. Mission members said yesterday the object could be a dirty piece of one of the air bags that cushioned the rover’s landing.

Engineers also spent yesterday trying to reposition Spirit’s lollipop-shaped high-gain antenna, which is blocked by the rover’s own camera mast. The rover was designed to use the antenna to communicate directly with Earth.

The rover was to spend a chunk of yesterday sleeping — its systems powered down — until its solar arrays had drawn enough energy to wake it later in the day.

Scientists planned to play the Beatles’ “Good Morning, Good Morning” before communicating with Spirit, Mr. Squyres said.

NASA targeted Spirit to land within a cigar-shaped ellipse just south of the Martian equator.

Based on three grainy photographs taken by the spacecraft as it plummeted to the surface, navigators believed they delivered Spirit to within six miles of its intended target. Brian Portock, of the mission’s navigation team, compared the feat to teeing off from Los Angeles and making a birdie in New York.

Over the next three months, the robot should use a suite of instruments to look for geologic evidence of past water activity in the rocks and soil. If water once filled Gusev Crater, it might have been a place suitable for life.

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