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Mars rover completes test drive 'rehearsal'

Mars rover view of 'Sleepy Hollow,' a nearby depression that the six-wheeled robot may visit.
Mars rover view of 'Sleepy Hollow,' a nearby depression that the six-wheeled robot may visit.

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Pandemonium erupts as Spirit makes a safe landing on Mars.
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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

PASADENA, California (Reuters) -- NASA engineers staged a "dress rehearsal" Sunday for the rover Spirit's first drive on Mars and scientists snapped the most detailed images yet of the rocky landscape where the robotic explorer likely will begin its search for signs of water.

The team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory tentatively delayed the rover's departure from its lander by one day -- until Wednesday night -- so they can test a three-part turn to position Spirit to drive off the back of the lander.

The rover now stands at its full 4.9-foot height, attached to its landing pad by a single power and communications cable, its instrument-laden robotic arm ready to perform the geological functions for which it traveled seven months and 303 million miles.

Although the vehicle was running slightly hotter than expected, its power and other systems were performing well on its eighth day on Mars, despite dusty conditions.

"The vehicle status remains pretty darned perfect," mission manager Arthur Amador said at a Sunday briefing.

Engineers scrapped plans for a forward roll off the lander after they were unable to retract partially deployed airbags that could have snagged on Spirit's solar panels.

Instead, engineers will turn the rover 120 degrees atop the lander, a process that will take two martian days, or sols.

They planned to refine the turn and exit maneuver Sunday night in a sand box mock-up of Spirit's landing site to learn more about potential hazards, Amador said.

The first rotation of Spirit by 45 degrees was planned for Monday night, the second and third for Tuesday night. If all goes well, Spirit will roll off the lander on Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

While NASA prepares for Spirit's drive, scientists can examine the rocks and soil in the rover's new path with Spirit's panoramic cameras and mini-thermal emission spectrometer.

It will be their first chance to use the spectrometer's full palette of 14 colors, including spectra beyond the range of the human eye, said NASA science manager John Callas.

The new spectrometer should give scientists enough information to identify types of rocks and their mineral classifications, as well as likely sources of clues to whether Mars once was wet enough to support life, Callas said.

"All the scientists are wildly excited," he said. "They see a diversity of rocks ... and stories that are waiting to be read and they want to reveal those stories."

Callas said the rover will spend at least two sols at the spot where it rolls off the lander, analyzing soil composition and rocks Spirit can reach with the instruments on its robotic arm.

After that, plans for the rover's three-month mission are fluid. "The science team every day will analyze data and decide what to do the next day."

The craft landed January 3 at Gusev Crater, which scientists believe may be the site of a dry lake bed once fed by a long, deep river.

Spirit is the fourth probe to successfully land on Mars, following two Viking landers in the 1970s and the Pathfinder mission in 1997. Spirit's twin explorer, the rover Opportunity, is due to land on the opposite side of the planet January 25.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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