Web Extra Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Editor's note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the February print issue of Geotimes.

Mars geologist in action

After a successful landing close to midnight EST last Saturday, the Mars exploration rover Spirit has been sending back information to its human tenders, in Pasadena, Calif. After three hours, Spirit took the first panorama view of its new home in the Gusev crater. The following day, Spirit sent back the highest resolution image ever taken of another planet.

Spirit's first high resolution image of its surroundings. Click on the image to download a larger picture. See below for the panorama that Spirit first sent to Earth. Images courtesy of NASA.

Earthlings have been to Mars before — via several mechanical envoys to the Red Planet's surface. But the current robotic emissary is several times larger than the first mobile explorer Sojourner. Spirit, which is the size of a golf cart, and its twin Opportunity, which will land Jan. 25, are much better equipped for some geology field work.

Tricked out with a stereo panoramic camera (which took the high-resolution color image to the right), the rovers have a robotic arm to collect rock samples, a rock grinder (to abrade surfaces for fresh, unweathered rock), a microscope and three spectrometers. One of the spectrometers will view the martian landscape in the infrared, to determine what rocks or sites might be most interesting to investigate. The other two will examine rocks at closer range, checking for iron-bearing minerals and using X-rays to determine more general composition. The microscope will act as the rovers' (and their scientists') hand lens, for inspecting grain sizes and other rock characteristics.

After waiting since last July's sendoff to watch Spirit's landing, the Mars explorer crew of NASA scientists is now planning for the next step: unlocking its "legs," or untucking the wheels so the robot explorer can drive off its landing platform and head for a target. One potential visiting site is "Sleepy Hollow," a depression an as-yet unknown distance away from the landing site that may or may not have held water at one point.

The rest of the geoscience community will be watching Spirit and Opportunity later this month to see what evidence they might find for life on the dry, dusty planet. Spirit will start exploring its environs next week.

Naomi Lubick


Mars Rover Mission Home
Athena Web page for science from the rovers
More coverage of the exploration of Mars in Geotimes, May 2003: "Landing the Mars Explorers" and "Technology: Robotic Geologists Take to Mars"

The image to the left is Spirit's first panorama view of where the craft landed, in Gusev crater. Click the image for a larger, three-dimensional view.

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