- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — NASA unveiled a breathtaking color snapshot yesterday of the surface of Mars. It was shot by its Spirit rover using a camera with the robotic equivalent of 20/20 vision.

The new color image is the sharpest photograph ever taken on the surface of Mars. NASA scientists called the picture a “postcard,” sent across 105 million miles of space to Earth from its rover.

The image is actually a mosaic of 12 separate pictures shot by Spirit’s high-resolution panoramic camera, or Pancam. It covers a 45-degree field of view of the terrain in Gusev Crater, where Spirit landed late Saturday.

“Trenching into this stuff will be an absolute blast,” Steven Squyres, the mission’s main scientist, said while describing the image of smooth and angular rocks and soil near the rover landing site.

The image is a preview of bigger and better pictures to come. The postcard makes up just one-eighth of a sweeping color panorama Spirit continues to shoot. It should be transmitted to Earth over the next week.

After a flawless landing on the Red Planet, the rover has snapped images of a barren, rock-strewn landscape that scientists hope will yield clues to whether Mars was once hospitable to life.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush thanked members of the NASA team for “their hard work and ingenuity and for reaffirming the great spirit of American exploration. … We know it is only a glimpse of the things to come as Spirit begins its historic trek across the Mars landscape.”

NASA on Monday released a 3-D, black-and-white picture that provided a 360-degree look at the desolate, wind-swept plains of Mars’ surface.

“I feel like I’m at a bad, ‘50s B-movie,” mission manager Matt Wallace quipped after reporters were issued 3-D glasses to view the image at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Guided by the high-resolution image, NASA scientists selected the first target on Mars they want Spirit to explore: a dusty depression nicknamed “Sleepy Hollow” located about 40 feet from where the rover landed. They believe the 30-foot-diameter depression is a dust-filled impact crater, one of dozens that pock an otherwise flat landscape.

“It’s a window” to Mars’ ancient past, said Mr. Squyres.

The golf-cart-size Spirit alighted on Mars in what scientists believe was a near-perfect landing using giant air bags as cushions.

It marked the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s first visit to the planet’s surface since Pathfinder in 1997. The $820 million unmanned project also includes a twin rover, Opportunity, expected to land on the opposite side of Mars on Jan. 24.

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

The 3-D images also show a cluster of hills on the horizon, thought to be less than two miles away. Over the next three months, Spirit will look for geologic evidence that Mars was once warmer and wetter.

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