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Science & Space

New rover sees red planet with 3-D eyes

By Richard Stenger

A 3D image from the Mars rover shows a possible mini-crater, upper left, which scientists hope to explore. If you have them, 3-D specs should draw out more detail.
A 3D image from the Mars rover shows a possible mini-crater, upper left, which scientists hope to explore. If you have them, 3-D specs should draw out more detail.

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- On its first full day on Mars, a NASA craft beamed back a three-dimensional panorama of its new home, a tantalizing hint of the capacity of the most sophisticated eyes ever to scan the red planet surface.

The $400 million rover, expected to send back its first color postcards from Mars within a day, also comes equipped with an unprecedented array of scientific instruments, which could help determine whether the cold, desert world once was a warm, wet planet.

Earlier Monday, the robotic explorer, named Spirit, locked in on Earth with its most powerful antenna for the first time, a crucial technical accomplishment that allows it to beam images and data directly home.

"The reality has far surpassed fantasy. She's just too easy to operate at this point," said Art Thompson, a robotics expert who will help drive the rover from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

After landing over the weekend, the machine had used the smallest of three antennae to relay brief messages via Martian satellites, but they can only be reached a few minutes a day, when the satellites zoom over the lander.

Now the rover can hail the home planet, when it comes into view, without a middleman for hours at a stretch with its lollipop-like, high-gain antenna.

"It gets you the critical information you need at the end of one Martian day and use it to plan the next day," planetary researcher Matt Golombek said.

Martian daze

Golombek and others on the rover team have adopted a Mars schedule, coordinating their waking and sleeping patterns with Martian days, which are nearly 40 minutes longer than those on Earth. They have blacked out their windows to prevent sunlight from coming in. Some even sport watches that measure Mars time.

"My cats are staying with my husband, so they get to stay on Earth time," quipped mission scientist Wendy Calvin.

The rover, also trying to become accustomed to a strange new world, will need at least a week before it begins roaming around Gusev Crater, a nearly 100 mile-wide pockmark just south of the Martian equator.

The golf cart-sized machine needs a chance to stretch, stand up and test its tools and wheels before NASA cuts its umbilical cord, a thick line that secures it to the landing platform, and turns it loose for its planned 90-day jaunt.

Cutting the cord

"We have to cut that last cable. That's when the rover is really born," said Mark Adler, manager of the Spirit mission.

In the meantime, mission engineers are poring over data to check Spirit's operational health. By all accounts, the robot ship made a nearly flawless landing late Saturday, far surpassing even the most optimistic predictions of precision to hit its landing target.

But engineers were devoting much of Monday to checking one of two motors that moves the high-gain antenna. It proved slightly noisier than expected, but they consider the anomaly a minor one that won't affect the mission.

Within hours of touchdown, Spirit beamed back black and white images from its new home, including a stunning panorama complete with a nearly setting sun and a possible cliff face along a depression or mini-crater.

"If we had to choose today, where we would go is that circular depression," said Steven Squyres,a Cornell University geologist in charge of the robot's instruments.

"This particular one is roughly 30 feet in diameter. It's something like 40 or 50 feet away from us. It's a hole in the ground. It's a window into the interior of Mars."

Dubbed "Sleepy Hollow," it may prove an irresistible draw for its Earth-bound drivers. But they maintain they will exercise restraint when selecting points of interest to visit, no matter how tantalizing.

Beware of rover trap

Squyres speculated that the hollow contains fine-grained soil that could bog down Spirit's wheels.

"I'm not sure that's not a rover trap," said Squyres, who will also manage the scientific payload on Spirit's identical twin, Opportunity, which will complete the seven-month, 300 million-mile trip to Mars in late January, landing on the opposite side of the planet.

Reporters don 3-D glasses to see a multi-dimentional image of Mars sent back by the rover.
Reporters don 3-D glasses to see a multi-dimentional image of Mars sent back by the rover.

For the most part, the science team was ecstatic about the quality of the landing spot. There are plenty of rocks for interesting geologic fieldwork, but few or no boulders to block its path. And save for the "rover trap," most of the area appears swept clean of possibly troublesome dust.

Spirit and Opportunity have considerably more mobility and capability than the most recent successful visitor to Mars. The 1997 NASA mission included the Pathfinder lander, which beamed back thousands of images, and Sojourner, a toy-sized test rover that scurried around the rocks and boulders littering the landing site.

Each of the new rover, however, is built to explore nearly as much territory in several days as Sojourner covered in three months, about 100 yards.

And each comes equipped with eight cameras that should provide stunning panoramas of the Martian surface, with resolutions so sharp they retain crisp detail when blown up to the size of a movie screen, according to NASA.

Their microscopes, spectrometers and drills could unlock geologic secrets from billions of years ago, when scientists think the planet may have had conditions more suitable for life

--'s Jeordan Legon contributed to this report.

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