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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Photos from Mars show rock-filled landscape

PASADENA, California: The first images NASA’s Spirit rover sent from Mars showed a landscape scattered with small rocks that brought cheers from scientists when they caught sight of the black-and-white photos. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began receiving the first of an estimated 60 to 80 images from Spirit’s cameras late on Saturday, just three hours after the robot made an apparently flawless landing on Mars. Scientists quickly assembled multiple images to form a sweeping panoramic of the Martian landscape, as well as a bird’s-eye view of the rover with its solar panels fully deployed. “This just keeps getting better and better. The pictures are fantastic,” said mission science manager John Callas. The Spirit’s successful landing on Mars bucked a trend of failed missions to the Red Planet. Just one in three past attempts to land on Mars have succeeded.

“For us to see a success here, at least at this point in the mission, is a source of pride for all Americans,” said John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Spirit is one of two-identical six-wheeled robots expected to roam the planet for 90 days, analysing Martian rocks and soil for clues that could reveal whether the planet was ever a warmer, wetter place capable of sustaining life. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory let out whoops of joy and embraced one another as the first signals from the rover indicated it had survived the landing. Mars — and Spirit — were 106 million miles from Earth at the time. The $820 million NASA Mars Exploration Rover project also includes a twin rover, Opportunity, which is set to arrive January 24 on Mars.

Late Saturday, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe toasted Spirit’s success with champagne. NASA’s last attempt to land on Mars, in 1999, ended in failure. Preliminary indications from Spirit suggested it landed upright, swaddled in the giant air bags that had cushioned its landing. Engineers believed Spirit landed smack in the middle of Gusev Crater, a basin the size of Israel just south of the martian equator. It should take scientists three or four days to pinpoint exactly where it alighted, said Steve Squyres, the mission’s main scientist. After landing, Spirit took about 90 minutes to set up and go to work, retracting its air bags and deploying its solar arrays. The first photographs showed a flat, wind-swept plain peppered with rocks. Also visible were portions of the rover itself, including a tiny sundial it carried to Mars. The new images were the first from the surface of Mars since NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997.


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