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NASA debuts first color picture from Mars rover

By Kate Tobin and Richard Stenger

NASA said this is the highest resolution image ever taken on the surface of another planet. It shows the barren, rock-strewn surface of Mars as seen from the rover.
NASA said this is the highest resolution image ever taken on the surface of another planet. It shows the barren, rock-strewn surface of Mars as seen from the rover.

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(CNN) -- NASA debuted a color picture from the Spirit rover on Tuesday showing gray rocks peppering a Martian lake bed awash in its natural hues of red, pink and orange.

Mission scientists said they were bowled over by the spectacular quality of the image, taken with a dual camera system called "pancam" that's mounted on a mast jutting up from the rover.

"I think my reaction has been one of shock and awe," said Jim Bell, the team member in charge of pancam. Using special software, mission scientists can "fly" through the image, zooming in on rocks and other landscape features of interest.

"It's approximately the color that you would see with your eyes, if you were standing there," Bell said

"The resolution, of course, is pretty much what you would see. Pancam has 20/20 vision. It is three to four times better than any previous mission that has gone to Mars, in fact, these pictures are the highest resolution, highest detailed pictures of Mars ever obtained. They are absolutely spectacular."

The $400 million rover is expected to send back many more color images from Mars in the coming days, as well as data from a sophisticated array of scientific instruments.

Project scientists have likened Spirit to a robotic geologist. The rover's mission is to study rocks in the vicinity of the landing site in an effort to determine whether the cold, desert world once was a warm, wet planet.

NASA said 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 the rover will remain still for 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.

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

The robotic explorer locked in on Earth with its most powerful antenna for the first time Monday, a crucial technical accomplishment that allows it to beam images and data directly to Earth without interruption.

Mission scientists said an anomaly in the operation of this so-called "high gain antenna" has so-far prevented them from using it to transmit large volumes of data. A special team has formed to investigate the problem.

For now, mission scientists are poring over the images from Spirit, debating where to send the rover once it is mobile. On Monday, a nearby mini-crater dubbed "Sleepy Hollow" emerged as the early favorite.

"I believe as we get to know our new home in Gusev Crater a lot better over the next few days, our picture of what's going on is going to change dramatically. Sleepy Hollow might turn out to not be very interesting at all," said Principal Investigator Steve Squyres.

"We're just waiting. We're just in awe of what we're seeing and we're just waiting to see the whole thing so we can really get about the business of deciding what to do."

While they wait, the science team is already scratching its head over a strange looking patch of ground that they believe was exposed when the landing craft's airbag dragged across it.

Describing it as a "layer of cohesive material," scientists say they saw something similar in photographs taken at the landing sites of the Viking spacecraft back in the 1970s. It even has a name, "duracrust." But beyond that, the scientists are baffled.

"It's not like anything I've ever seen before," said Squyres. "It's very weird looking stuff."

Squyres will also manage the scientific payload on Spirit's identical twin, Opportunity. Opportunity is scheduled to complete the 300-million-mile trip to Mars in late January, landing on the opposite side of the planet.

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.

The new rovers, however, is built to explore nearly as much territory in several days as Sojourner covered in three months, about 100 yards. 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.

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