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A.J.S. RaylJanuary 9, 2004

Spirit Returns More "Exquisite" Data, Inspires New Generation of Space Explorers

Spirit continues to return "exquisite" science data -- including more impressive high-resolution pictures of its alien surroundings -- and it has stood up, but the golf-cart sized rover is still days away from rolling off the Columbia Memorial Station, the mission team reported in the latest daily media briefing.

While everything is moving along in appropriate increments, and positive health reports are in for all the science instruments, the operative word is 'caution.' The earliest the robot geologist will touch its tires to Martian soil is next Thursday or Friday, four days later than initially planned, but well within the nominal egress window, according to members of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission team.

Everyone on the team -- not to mention in the media center -- is anxious to get the rover moving -- "We are chomping at the bit to get this puppy off the lander and get driving," as robotics engineers Art Thompson put it at yesterday's briefing. At the same time, they all want it to 'egress' as safely as possible. "We will crawl before we run," stressed Albert Haldemann, Deputy Project Scientist, JPL, today. "Patience is required here."

During the last couple of days, Spirit has performed like a trooper, going through its commands and executions in a fairly smooth way with a few "hiccups," as Art Thompson defined them. In addition to Spirit's successful stand-up, accomplishments include:

If each of the Spirit's instruments will have, "its day in the Sun," as Steve Squyres put it in previous days, the last couple of days have belonged to the PanCam. The stunningly crisp images of Spirit's immediate surroundings are the best pictures ever returned from Mars. The Pan Cam is "very healthy, happily operating and taking lots of pictures on Mars," offered Cornell University's Jim Bell, the instrument's lead scientist, as the daily press briefing got underway.

In addition to releasing new images, Bell revealed that the PanCam's simple calibration target - a rectangular-shaped, color and gray-scale chart, positioned on the solar panels of both Spirit and Opportunity, is actually a functioning sundial, or MarsDial.

The brainstorm actually sparked from Bill Nye the Science Guy, [a Planetary Society board member] who "made clear to us," said Bell, how this could be used not only by scientists [who would use it to adjust the rovers cameras], but also to help kids and teachers learn about planets and celestial motions.

"I thought nothing could be more cool than to show that Mars is a real world orbiting the Sun, just like the Earth, than to have a sundial marking the passage of time there," Nye said earlier.

Like just about everything else on the Mars Exploration Rover missions, the MarsDial was produced and developed by a collective effort that not only included Nye, but MER lead scientist Steve Squyres, Woody Sullivan, Tyler Nordgren, and Planetary Society Advisor Jon Lomberg, who executed the design of both the dial and the side panels message. The Planetary Society's Executive Director Louis Friedman came up with the motto.

As participants in The Planetary Society/Lego Company Red Rover Goes To Mars Project, the first two of 16 student astronauts -- Courtney Dressing, a high school student from Virginia, and Rafael Morozowski, a high school student from Brazil -- got some first hand experience with the MarsDial -- as both a science tool and an teaching/learning tool, and informed reporters of what they learned.

During their part of the mission -- one week at JPL, working alongside the engineers and scientists -- Morozowski and Dressing spent some of their 'astronaut' time monitoring the dial to track time on Mars, and processing the images.

Dressing and Morozowski also pointed out, in one of the black and white images returned the first night, a mini-DVD mounted on the Spirit lander, another aspect of the Planetary Society and Lego Company's Red Rover Goes to Mars Project.

The DVD mounting structure includes magnets to collect dust, colors to study color appearance under a Martian sky, and representations of robotic LEGO mini-figures that have been personified as Astrobots Biff Starling on Spirit, and Sandy Moondust on Opportunity, who is, needless to say, still en route to Mars. The DVD itself carries the names of four million people who submitted them to the project and encircling the DVD is a coded message, ready for the decoding.

After their short tour of duty as student astronauts, working alongside the scientists and learning about how a mission to Mars happens, both Dressing and Morozowski found it exciting, enlightening, and mind-changing. The single most exciting moment was "(d)efinitely the landing," said Dressing. "That was incredible!" Morozowski agreed.

"It's made me definitely want to go into the space program in some way," Dressing said. "And I'm thinking about working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory rather than to be an astronaut, because right now we actually have a robot on Mars -- and my chances are better to go to Mars that way, rather than trying to go as an astronaut to Mars."

For Morozowski, the week as a student astronaut may influence his future course of studies. Although he has thought about working in music or movies production or architecture, "working on this mission," he said, "has changed" his considerations "to science."

Meanwhile, much of the same kind of visceral inspiration is intensifying activities among the mission team. Behind the scenes, in the wee hours of the night, Spirit's images of this strange new world foretell of new knowledge. All kinds of brainstorming session are underway about every aspect of the Spirit mission - from how the landscape surrounding Spirit was shaped to why the straggling airbag is still poofed up.

Recent new visions of Mars are captivating the minds and imaginations of the scientists and further confusing hypotheses. They had almost unanimously favored Gusev Crater as a landing site because of the potential that the huge crater once contained a lake filled with water, a habitat hospitable to life. Oddly, they have not seen fine-grained sediments they expect to see in a former lakebed. If the landing site was ever a lakebed, it has to have been significantly impacted by other geologic and meteorologic processes, according to Ray Arvidson, Washington University, deputy principal investigator for the rover's science instruments.

Red Rover Goes to Mars: Meet the Student Astronauts

"A lake bed is typically flat, with very fine-grain sediments," Arvidson said. "That's not what we're looking at. If these are lake sediments, then they've been chewed up by impacts and rocks have been brought in."

Meanwhile, Spirit's upcoming activities for the next few days, include: retracting that straggling airbag another six revolutions, then drop the front pedal down; and "move on to standing up," says Wallace.

Indeed. Spirit did stand up, late tonight, PST. With a soundtrack of Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" playing in the control room, engineers watched new images confirming that Spirit successfully stood up on its lander.

Now -- the 'egress.' The ideal path is straight out front. They could command the rover to turn a little to the right or left - "both are very viable alternatives . . . but we prefer drive forward," Wallace said.

Spirit arrived at Mars around 8:35 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, on January 3, 2004 after a seven-month journey. Once it gets rolling, this robot geologist will spend the next three months looking for clues in rocks and soil to learn if the past environment at Gusev Crater was suitable for life. Despite the excruciating slowness with which all this is happening, one can almost sense from Spirit that she's ready --" a thoroughbred anxious to get out of the gate," offered Wallace. "And Spirit is capable of multitasking well beyond the capabilities of its handlers," he added. "We're just going to take it really easy, and carefully."

Spirit's twin Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, is scheduled to reach its landing site on the opposite side of Mars on January 24, Pacific Standard Time; January 25, Eastern Standard Time, to begin a similar examination of a site on the opposite side of the planet, in an area known as Meridian Planum. Atmospheric conditions in the region of Opportunity's landing site are being monitored from orbit, according to Joy Crisp, project scientist for both rovers. Information about the actual conditions Spirit experienced on its descent through Mars' atmosphere are being compared with the conditions predicted ahead of time in order to refine the predictions for what Opportunity will experience.

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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