- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — NASA yesterday released a three-dimensional black-and-white panoramic picture of the bleak surface of Mars snapped by the newly landed rover Spirit.

Reporters at a news conference were issued cardboard 3-D glasses to look at the 360-degree image of a desolate, wind-scoured plain strewn with rocks.

“I feel like I’m at a bad, ‘50s B-movie,” mission manager Matt Wallace said as he watched a roomful of reporters take in the image at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA scientists used the high-resolution image yesterday to pick the first target on Mars they want Spirit to visit: a dusty depression that could yield clues to whether the Red Planet was once hospitable to life.

“It’s a window” into Mars’ ancient past, said Steve Squyres, the mission’s lead scientist.

Cushioned by huge air bags, the golf-cart-sized Spirit made an apparently flawless landing on Mars late Saturday, safely returning NASA to the planet’s surface for the first time since Pathfinder in 1997. The $820 million unmanned project includes a twin rover, Opportunity, set to land on the opposite side of Mars on Jan. 24.

Numerous other missions to Mars have ended in spectacular failure, with some spacecraft crashing or blowing to pieces.

Yesterday, scientists said they dubbed Spirit’s first target “Sleepy Hollow.” They believe the 30-foot-diameter depression is a dust-filled impact crater, one of dozens that pock an otherwise flat landscape.

Late last night scientists expected to receive the first high-resolution color “postcard” from Spirit — the most detailed photo ever sent by a spacecraft from the surface of Mars, which is 105 million miles from Earth.

NASA yesterday released a thumbnail-sized color preview of the image — the first color picture from Mars in nearly seven years.

Art Thompson said the black-and-white pictures that have been streaming from Spirit since its landing are making him and other scientists feel like a kid in a candy store.

Over the next three months, Spirit will look for geologic evidence that Mars was once warmer, wetter and perhaps more conducive to life.

Scientists continued to perform health checks on the rover. A science instrument that malfunctioned on the way to Mars was found to be in perfect working order. The instrument, a Mossbauer spectrometer, was designed to analyze iron-bearing minerals in the rocks and soil.

The rover remained in a folded, crouched position atop its lander. Yesterday, Spirit was to cut the second of three cables linking it to the four-petaled lander and begin a three-day unfolding process.

But Spirit will not roll away for another week. Even though it could reach “Sleepy Hollow” in a day’s drive, a cautious NASA may break up the trip into several days.

“We haven’t earned our Martian driver’s licenses yet,” Mr. Squyres said.

“Sleepy Hollow” lies about 40 feet from where the rover landed. The 3-D images also show a cluster of hills on the horizon, thought to be less than two miles away. The flatness of the terrain has buoyed the hopes of scientists eager to push beyond the horizon and roam the Martian plain.

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