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A.J.S. RaylJanuary 6, 2004

Spirit: A Star is Born, A Space Agency and A Nation Are Lifted

If a Hollywood screenwriter had crafted the scenes for the last few days of the Spirit Mission Team at JPL as they really happened -- success after success, triumphant image after triumph he or she would be out of a job. In fact, that scriptwriter would never be able to find work in this town again. It's just too good. Everything is just too good -- and every one knows that life doesn't happen like that.

But for a golf-cart-sized rover named Spirit it is happening like that, so far anyway.

Ever since landing last Saturday night, Spirit has performed beautifully, returning the first visions of a new landscape. A global public has, if only for a moment here and there, stopped its Earthly endeavors to tune in or log on and glimpse this new world that is beginning to emerge in the postcards from Mars. The latest is the first color postcard Spirit has sent -- a landscape image taken by the high-resolution camera known as the PanCam that is, simply, the best -- as in highest resolution and brightest detail -- picture ever returned from Mars. Its unveiling drew plenty of applause at the daily news briefing this morning.

The NASA/JPL websites now boast more than 'one billion served,' and even behind the scenes, people are blown away. "My reaction has been one of shock and awe," offered Cornell's Jim Bell, the payload element lead for the PanCam, otherwise known as 'the guy with the cool camera.'

At first quick glance, the image appears to present a pretty nondescript, rusty-colored flatland dotted with rocks. But the image is strangely alluring, familiar - almost, and compelling for everyone.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," lead scientist Steve Squyres proclaimed. "It's just a tiny taste of what's to come."

The mission team is still not exactly sure where in Gusev Crater they are yet, but they're analyzing the data and arguing about it, and they'll known soon. By and large, though, everything is moving forward at a much faster pace than any had anticipated.

Spirit, meanwhile, appears eager, almost as if she's saying: 'Let's roll' - and she* has star written all over her. If there had been any doubt about that after the landing Saturday night, perhaps the phone call from President Bush this morning serves as the latest evidence that this little robot geologist and her 'dream team' of engineers and scientists have lifted the spirits of the country, as well as a space agency darkened by the Columbia tragedy.

"The President congratulated the team, and said they represented the best of our nation," JPL Director Charles Elachi relayed at the daily news briefing. "He called their effort a confirmation of the American spirit for exploration, and he thanked them for daring to be brave, and told them that the landing of Spirit was 'a proud moment for all Americans.'

"It was a wonderful phone call -- very humorous and exciting for the team," Elachi added. "You could see the beaming faces of all these people, as they talked with him. I invited the President to come and visit, but Jennifer [Trosper, the mission manager for surface operations] did me one better and invited him to come and drive the rover --" he said.

"Very carefully," Trosper interjected.

"I told him how proud we are and how privileged we are that the nation has entrusted us with undertaking this quest of exploration that we have," Elachi continued, smiling. "And then we had a little chat about quantum physics and string theory."

Once the laughter died down, the briefing quickly turned to the team's efforts and Spirit's activities. The big news of the day was the color PanCam postcard. The PanCam is the camera system that sits atop Spirit's mast; it is the camera that will be taking all the color pictures through the duration of this mission.

The image released today is a view out from the front of the rover, taken around 2:30 p.m. Mars time. It is a 12 million-pixel panorama that took two full minutes to download on state-of-the-art equipment -- and it was worth every long second.

What Squyres and his team see is tantalizing: a vast landscape of flat land, with a mesa clearly visible in the distance, toward the upper right hand corner of the frame -- all in exquisite detail. Although the scientists have already estimated that the mesa is 20 to 30 kilometers away and out of Spirit's range, there are plenty of other features well within range, including an almost perfect (the phrase may reach saturation in this story) collection of rocks, with enough variances to make every geologist happy.

The general rusty coloration is about the same as the images from Viking and Pathfinder, but the terrain is notably different. "The rock size and distribution is far different than anything else we've ever seen," Squyres said.

The team's early description of the area as a "race track" has been amended to "a bumpy racetrack," Trosper admits. The really good news is that none of the rocks appear to be more than 20 centimeters tall, Trosper said. That means Spirit can rove over them all. So hold onto your hats because from the looks of things, it appears Spirit, is about to enjoy many a bumpy night.

The images reveal some intriguing dark patches on the surface, and distinct 'debris' trails behind some rocks, and there are areas by the airbags that look, to everyone, like mud -- but there is no mud on Mars. There can't be. There's no surface water. "It looks like there's a layer of cohesive material, strangely cohesive, and breaks away in pieces. We're dying to get a closer look at this. It's not like anything I have ever seen before," Squyres admitted. "Trenching into this stuff will be an absolute blast!"

About one-third of the visible rocks, Squyres continued, have remarkably smooth surfaces, and the shapes are quite varied, some rounded, others more angled. "They almost look like they've been sand-blasted," he noted, hypothesizing that these rocks may have been exposed for a long time to wind and debris moving over them -- "which tells us nothing yet about the composition of these rocks. That's yet to come." But it does say something about the hypothesis that Gusev Crater is a windy place. "It may be that we go out and grind into one of these smooth rocks and find that inside it is just like the surface. Mars may have cleared them off for us."

The team plans on taking two Mini-TES 90-degree panoramas today, and they took two 90-degree Mini-TES yesterday. That data -- which, remember, will records the thermal spectra of rocks and soils to determine types and amounts of minerals they contain -- along with other data from the other instruments is "all yet to come," Squyres reminded. http://www.planetary.org/mars/mer-inst-minites.html

As for Spirit, she spent her third day on Mars yesterday executing more commands and going through more processes in preparation to her debut - essentially, unfolding in a manner not unlike 'reverse origami," as Squyres puts it, and basically standing up and locking into starting position, ready to roll.

She had an 8:45 a.m. call, local Mars time yesterday morning, after a typical night's sleep -- of 15 hours. "We're down here thinking 'Spirit got the best part of this deal,'" Trosper chuckled. After a quick phone home -- during which Spirit was deemed in "good health"-- the team took the next step necessary for egress - cutting the second of three cables holding her in place.

As it turned out, they did not try to retract the airbags more as planned yesterday, but they did conduct sequence tests with the ground model to make sure they could get the bag properly retracted and not jam something, before employing it on Mars. They plan to send the sequence today for Spirit to retract the airbags one revolution or 6-1/2 inches at a time, for three times, which would pull the visible portions of the airbag back almost 20 more inches.

While Spirit keeps on delivering good news, there have been a few glitches, which the team is now trying to understand and fix. Spirit is "dressed a little warmer," than she should be, Trosper informed. They linked the warmth to the UHF radio with which Spirit has been communication with Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), and so decided to delete one communication with Odyssey to let Spirit chill a bit. The team has begun working on a long-term solution to this thermal problem, but they anticipate that once the she starts up and gets to the ground her temperature should drop by about 5 degrees.

They have also discovered an "anomaly" with the high gain antenna. During the very first moves of the antenna after its deployment yesterday, they noticed some "uncharacteristic spikes." Today, the team will try to acquire more data to see if they can find out why those unusual current spikes are appearing. "We want to be careful," said Trosper.

In the meantime, the mission has been unfolding fast and furiously and the team hasn't even caught up on any sleep much less had a time to digest the meaning of all this. But one thing is certain: they are most definitely ready to roll, sleep or no sleep. And, they all agree that like everyone else, Squyres said speaking for the team, "we're in awe of what we're seeing."

But no matter how much shock 'n awe Spirit delivers, nothing can hold this team back. They're currently working on getting the first color, stereo picture from the PanCam, and going through the motions of preparing Spirit for her roll down the rusty red carpet.


* [FYI: It has been determined, mostly, apparently, through a comment by Jennifer Trosper, Spirit is a she; and given that Opportunity is "an identical twin" as Squyres reminds -- they are both of the feminine persuasion.]

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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