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Science

Terrain of Mars Is Seen in High Relief

Times Staff Writers

NASA’s Spirit rover on Monday beamed back a three-dimensional, 360-degree view of its Gusev Crater landing site on Mars, a prelude to the more spectacular high-definition color images expected today.

The Monday morning news conference at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the photo was revealed, was a scene reminiscent of a 1950s-era movie.

Reporters and NASA team members donned 3-D glasses — paper frames with one blue plastic lens and one red one — and jaws dropped as the rocks and depressions just beyond the lander emerged in high relief.

Then a group of Mars team members displayed two 9-foot-long images of the stereoscopic landscape, an instant mural of discovery.

The most prominent feature in the image is a crater, roughly 30 feet in diameter and 40 to 50 feet north of the rover. Acknowledging the long hours the Spirit team has been working, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the mission’s principal investigator, dubbed the depression Sleepy Hollow, and indicated it is likely to be the first destination for the rover.

“It’s a window into the interior of Mars,” he said. “On the far wall, there is rock exposed, so this may be a chance to see what rock looks like in the upper layers [of the Martian surface]. It’s a very exciting feature.”

Squyres noted that there appeared to be a large number of smaller depressions near the landing site, possibly the results of secondary cratering — material ejected from a large asteroid strike that then fell back to the surface, producing its own craters.

Sleepy Hollow would be about a day’s drive away if the team were more experienced at handling Spirit, Squyres said. “But we don’t have our Martian driver’s license yet, so we are going to take it nice and slow. If it takes a week to get to Sleepy Hollow, that will be fine with me.”

The rover will probably make at least one scientific stop along the way.

The photos reveal two large rocks along the route, and Spirit will probably stop and analyze their composition.

Sunday “was a good day on Mars,” said Matt Wallace, Spirit mission manager. “The good news just keeps on coming.”

Like a tourist checking into a resort hotel, Spirit has begun unlimbering its instruments, arranging communications and taking a look around the landing site to get its bearings.

Since Spirit arrived on the Martian surface Saturday, everything has checked out perfectly, team members said. All of Spirit’s instruments are working, good communication links have been established and the site promises to provide a wealth of scientific details.

“We’ve demonstrated that we can command the rover” from Earth, Wallace said. “All went well.”

Scientists had been particularly concerned about Spirit’s Mossbauer spectrometer, a German-built instrument designed to determine the composition of iron-bearing minerals that are difficult to detect by other means.

The instrument was badly shaken during Spirit’s launch in June, and malfunctioned during the seven-month cruise to Mars. Researchers spent a great deal of time during the flight attempting to work around the problem.

When the team confirmed late Sunday that it was working, Squyres said, there was “whooping and hollering” just like there had been in the control room on the night of the landing — “but it was all in German.”

The team still has a week’s worth of preparatory work before the rover can get on with its real mission, which is to move around on the surface and look for signs that water once existed in the crater in large quantities — an indication that life may have existed there as well.

Controllers will take the first steps in that direction today by ordering the rover to rear up on its hind four wheels so that the front two wheels can be extended from their folded transport position and locked into place.

The team will also fire pyrotechnics — small explosives — to sever some of the cables connecting the rover to its landing platform.

The team is proceeding slowly, and the process will take three days, Wallace said.

Freeing the rover from the lander is a crucial step, Squyres said. “If we can’t get off the lander, we can never get any science done. We can take pictures with the [panoramic camera] until the cows come home, but the scenery is never going to change.”

The efforts on Mars are getting out of sync with Earth time. The Martian day is 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds, so the discrepancy grows each day.

On Monday, the rover woke up at 4:20 p.m. PST, shortly after the Martian sunrise. Today it will awaken at 5 p.m., Wednesday at 5:40, and so on.

For JPL staff members, the unveiling of the 3-D image was another emotional moment, one more vivid realization that years of work had begun to pay off.

Tom Shain, logistics manager for the mission, said the lab staff was moving forward with a renewed confidence — and high expectations of success for Spirit’s identical twin, Opportunity, which is scheduled to land on Mars on Jan. 24.

Shain, who began his career at JPL in 1961, plans to retire after the twin rover missions.

“For me, it’s a super one to stand down on,” he said.


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