Scientists 'flabbergasted' by Mars rover's unusual rock photos

Monday, January 26, 2004

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Opportunity rover zipped its first pictures of Mars to Earth on Sunday, delighting and puzzling scientists just hours after the spacecraft bounced to a landing.

The pictures show a surface smooth and dark red in some places, and strewn with fragmented slabs of light bedrock in others. Bounce marks left by the rover's air bags when it landed were clearly visible.

"I am flabbergasted. I am astonished. I am blown away. Opportunity has touched down in an alien and bizarre landscape," said Steven Squyres, of Cornell University and the mission's main scientist. "I still don't know what we're looking at."

NASA began receiving the first of dozens of black-and-white and color images from Opportunity about four hours after its flawless landing. Mars at the time was 124 million miles from Earth.

Mission members hooted and hollered as the images splashed on a screen in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was there with his wife, Maria Shriver, to watch the drama unfold, and walked through mission control shaking hands with the scientists.

"The pictures just blow me away. We've certainly not been to this place before," deputy project manager Richard Cook said.

Opportunity plunged into the martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph and bounced down on Mars just six minutes later, swaddled in protective air bags. It hit with a force estimated to be two to three times that of Earth's gravity. Engineers had designed it to withstand as much as 40 G's, said Chris Jones, director of flight projects at JPL.

The six-wheeled rover landed at 11:05 a.m. Sunday in Meridiani Planum, believed to be the smoothest, flattest spot on Mars. Opportunity lies 6,600 miles and halfway around the planet from where its twin, Spirit, landed Jan. 3.

On Sunday, NASA said Opportunity was in excellent health and Spirit was on the mend after a serious software problems had hobbled it.

Initial analysis of the images suggested Opportunity landed in a shallow crater roughly 66 feet across. Its low rim shouldn't block the rolling robot once it gets going, Squyres said.

Opportunity could roll off its lander in 10 to 14 days, mission manager Arthur Amador said. Opportunity's possible targets include a larger crater, maybe 500 feet across, that lies an estimated half-mile from where the spacecraft landed.

The rover's ramp off its lander appeared unobstructed, unlike that of the Spirit rover, said Matt Wallace, another of the mission managers. Spirit had to use an alternate ramp because a deflated air bag blocked its safest route to the martian surface.

Together, the twin 384-pound rovers make up a $820 million mission to seek out geologic evidence that Mars was once a wetter world possibly capable of sustaining life. NASA launched Spirit on June 10 and Opportunity on July 7. Each carries nine cameras and six scientific instruments.

On Wednesday, Spirit developed serious problems, cutting off what had been a steady flow of pictures and scientific data. It resumed delivering data Friday, but on a limited basis.

Engineers now believe the problem arose with software that manages the file system within the rover's flash memory, project manager Pete Theisinger said. Other possible culprits include broken hardware or solar radiation.

"Spirit is still serious but we are moving to guarded condition," Theisinger said, adding that Spirit could resume normal operations in two to three weeks.

Hours after Opportunity's landing, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe broke open a bottle of champagne and toasted the mission.

"As the old saying goes, it's far better to be lucky than good, but you know, the harder we work the luckier we seem to get," O'Keefe said, adding "no one dared hope" that both rover landings would be so successful.

NASA sent Spirit to Gusev Crater, a broad depression believed to once have contained a lake. Opportunity was sent to Meridiani Planum, which scientists believe abounds in a mineral called gray hematite.

The iron-rich mineral typically forms in marine or volcanic environments marked by hydrothermal activity. Hematite is common in the red soil found across the southeastern United States and is frequently used as a pigment, said Doug Ming, of NASA's Johnson Space Center and a member of the science team.

NASA launched two rovers to double its chances of successfully landing on Mars. Both carry identical plaques memorializing the seven astronauts who died aboard space shuttle Columbia nearly a year ago, Opportunity mission manager Jim Erickson said.

As of early Sunday, there were a record five spacecraft operating on or around Mars, including two NASA satellites and one from the European Space Agency orbiting the planet.


On the Net:

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: