- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — A NASA rover plunged through the atmosphere of Mars and touched down on the Red Planet late last night, beginning its mission to roam the rocky surface in search of evidence it was once suitable for life.

A cheer went up at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories after signals showed the spacecraft, Spirit, had successfully bounced down on Mars after a violent, six-minute descent.

Immediately after the touchdown, mission scientists on the ground lost contact with Spirit, as expected. The rover bounced for roughly 20 minutes, traveling up to half a mile.

At 11:51 p.m. EST, controllers received signals that the rover had successfully landed.

Earlier in the day, Spirit was on track to make a “bull’s-eye” landing within a cigar-shaped ellipse inside Gusev Crater, a Connecticut-sized indentation just south of the Martian equator, navigation team chief Louis D’Amario said.

“This is essentially perfect navigation. We couldn’t have possibly hoped to do better than this,” Mr. D’Amario said.

Previously, one in three attempts to land spacecraft on Mars have failed. The latest apparent failure was the British Beagle 2 lander, which has not been heard from since it was to have set down on Mars on Christmas.

“It’s an incredibly difficult place to land. Some have called it the ‘death planet’ for good reason,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for space science.

NASA’s last attempt at landing on Mars, in 1999, failed when a software glitch sent the Polar Lander crashing to the ground. Since then, the space agency has increased oversight of its missions.

“We have done everything we know to do to ensure these missions will be a success,” said Charles Elachi, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The $820 million NASA project also includes a twin rover, Opportunity, which is set to arrive on Mars Jan. 24.

The camera- and instrument-laden rovers were designed to spend 90 days analyzing Martian rocks and soil for clues that could reveal whether the Red Planet was ever a warmer, wetter place capable of sustaining life.

Today, Mars is a dry and cold world. But ancient river channels and other water-carved features spied from orbit suggest that Mars may have had a more hospitable past.

“We see these intriguing hints Mars may have been a different place long ago,” said Steve Squyres, the mission’s lead scientist.

The rovers were built to look for evidence that liquid water — an ingredient for life — once persisted on the surface of the planet. A direct search for life on Mars is at least a decade away, NASA scientists said.

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