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A.J.S. RaylJanuary 4, 2004

Mars Rover 'Alive and Well' Returning More Images

After surviving the entry, descent, and bumpy, bouncing landing onto the Red Planet last night Earth time -- early afternoon Martian time -- Spirit spent a quiet, cold night in Gusev Crater, and woke up to return streams of new data, including more black and white 'postcards' from Mars.

The first of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit traveled 302.6 million miles [487 million kilometers] to reach Mars after its launch from Cape Canaveral on June 10, 2003. The rover stopped rolling last night with its base petal down, the desired and best of all possible positions though that could change as airbags deflate, according to JPL's Rob Manning, development manager for the rover's descent through Mars' atmosphere and landing on the surface.

Interestingly, the robot geologist -- which engineers now say is looking south -- had accomplished all this even before its official wake-up call. This event, which is something of a ritual and basically involves the team playing music to initiate the rover's post-landing operations, took place at about 2:36 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (PST) this afternoon. The song of choice? The Beatle's "Good Morning, Good Morning," from what Rolling Stone recently deemed the best rock'n roll album of all time, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a rocking, upbeat classic, complete with rooster calls.

As of noon today, all systems on Spirit were reported to be operating "nominally." On Mars, the temperature was reported to be warmer than expected -- all the way up the mercury to 98-degrees Fahrenheit. No worries -- Spirit's designers know the benefits of 'outerwear,' and the little robot geologist is well-insulated.

Around 7:30 a.m. PST this morning, and again at noon, Spirit transmitted the data via two NASA orbiters Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, which transmitted the first images from the hazard and navigation cameras to JPL last night.

The data can be intermittent during transmission opportunities, but when it comes in, it arrives in deluges and it comes in fast. Today, the data zipped in at a brisk 32 kilobits per second. In the next couple of days, however, that pace will pick up even more, JPL engineers said today, to 128 kilobits per second, allowing for three times more data to be sent down in any given transmission opportunity.

One of the images from MGS this morning is the first mosaic image from the instrument known as the PanCam, which features stereo, 20/20 human-like vision and will pan across the landscape at a height of about five feet, offering up views comparable to what we might see if we were standing where Spirit is.

NASA chose Spirit's landing site within Gusev Crater because of evidence from Mars orbiters that this site may have actually been a lake in the distant past. The crater itself is basin the size of Connecticut that was created by an asteroid or comet impact early in Mars' history. A long, deep valley, apparently carved by ancient flows of water, leads into Gusev. Spirit's job is to spend the next three months exploring for clues in rocks and soil about whether the past environment at this part of Mars was ever watery and hospitable to life.

Next on the immediate agenda for Spirit is a 'physical,' and if things continue to look good, it will deploy high-gain antenna later today. Engineers, meanwhile, will no doubt be spending the next couple of days homing in on exactly where the rover is, using radar data from MGS and Odyssey, among other methods.

The flight team expects to spend more than a week directing Spirit through a series of steps in unfolding, standing up, and executing other actions necessary before the rover rolls off of its lander platform. That's when the rubber will really hit the road. In the meantime, Spirit's cameras and a mineral-identifying infrared instrument will begin examining the surrounding terrain. That information will help engineers and scientists decide which direction to send the rover first.

Spirit's twin -- Opportunity -- is to arrive in about three weeks. Launched July 7, 2003, it is on course for a landing on the opposite side of Mars in Meridiani Planum at 9:05 p.m. on Jan. 24, PST.

Read more: Spirit, mission status, Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars

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Salley Rayl
A.J.S. Rayl

Contributing Editor for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by A.J.S. Rayl

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