Spirit rover digs into first rock on martian surface

Sunday, February 8, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Fresh from being given a clean bill of health, the Spirit rover drilled its first tiny hole in a rock on the surface of Mars, NASA scientists said Saturday.

"We made some history here. We put the first planned hole on Mars," said Stephen Gorevan, a scientist handling some of Spirit's workload.

A tool equipped with small, diamond-shaped heads cut 2.7 millimeters deep into a small area of a sharply angled rock dubbed Adirondack. The circular hole, measuring about 45 millimeters wide, could give scientists clues to Mars' geologic past.

"The rock gave us a lot of resistance," Gorevan said. "We needed three hours to go this deep."

The football-sized rock is believed to be made of basalt, a volcanic material. An image of the rock shows depressions that resemble the eye and open mouth of the "Pac-Man" video game figure.

Spirit has spent more than a month on Mars as part of an $820 million mission that includes its twin, Opportunity, which is exploring the opposite end of the planet. They are looking for evidence that water -- a key condition for life -- ever existed on the planet.

One reason scientists selected Adirondack for inspection was its relatively dust-free appearance compared to other nearby rocks. The rover's rock abrasion tool first cleaned a circular patch then grinded off the weathered surface.

Data and images from Spirit about the rock were expected to be received from Mars late Saturday.

Spirit was disabled by computer problems for more than two weeks but scientists said Friday they had repaired the problem.

Scientists had hoped Spirit would take a long drive this weekend, but those plans were changed, mission manager Matt Wallace said.

Instead, the rover probably will back away from Adirondack, take more photos of the hole and drive about three meters toward another rock on Sunday, Wallace said.

Opportunity on Saturday moved about a meter closer to a formation nicknamed "Snout" to give one of its features closer examination. Scientists had Opportunity snap pictures of nearby soil, but skipped plans for the rover to dig into and analyze the soil to get to Snout more quickly.

Opportunity's cameras have captured images of fine-scaled rock layering that could have formed in water. Its instruments should shed further light on the origin of the layers.

On the Net: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov

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