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Mars rover moves a foot, 'ready to roll'

This snippet of a panoramic color photo from Mars shows 'Sleepy Hollow,' a depression that the NASA rover Spirit may explore.
This snippet of a panoramic color photo from Mars shows 'Sleepy Hollow,' a depression that the NASA rover Spirit may explore.

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Pandemonium erupts as Spirit makes a safe landing on Mars.
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PASADENA, California (Reuters) -- Engineers cut the last cable tying Spirit to the lander that delivered it to Mars, and took the rover for a short spin -- a 25-centimeter (1 foot) roll backwards and a clockwise pivot of 45 degrees.

"Today was a fantastic day. The end point of the day is that Spirit is a rover," said flight director Chris Lewicki. "We're ready to roll."

NASA scientists on Tuesday targeted a crater and a far-off range of hills as the main destinations for the Mars rover Spirit, which was on track to roll off its lander early Thursday to search for ancient signs of water.

The 200-meter (660-foot)-wide crater, a potential trove of information about the planet's geologic past, sits about 250 meters (820 feet) northeast of the rover Spirit's landing site in the massive Gusev Crater.

The trip to the crater will take about six weeks, with Spirit stopping to sample soil and rocks with its array of geologic tools and cameras along the way.

"The goal at this site is to find material to tell us if Gusev Crater once contained a lake," Steve Squyres, the rover mission's principal investigator, said on Tuesday at the end of the rover's 10th day, or sol, on Mars.

"We want to go somewhere that has a big hole in the ground to find out what's under it," he added. "Then what will we do? We're gonna head for the hills."

The East Hills Complex, a range of six low peaks about 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) from the lander, lie far beyond the 600 meters (1,970 feet) Spirit was designed to travel during its three-month mission.

Squyres said although the rover may never get to the hills, simply improving the view for the rover's high-resolution cameras and mini-thermal emission spectrometer, which identifies minerals, would be worth the trip.

"It's going to be an adventure and we don't know how it's going to work out," he said.

Positioned for drive

The golf cart-sized rover performed flawlessly on sol 10 during a series of maneuvers designed to position it to drive down the lander's rear ramp.

A check of two blind spots that were blocked by the rover's rear solar panels revealed no hazards, and plans for sol 11, or Tuesday night, were to complete the 120-degree rotation in two steps.

Unlike the halting preparations leading up to egress, the rover's 78-second drive off the lander -- a distance of three meters (10 feet) will happen in "one long step," Lewicki said.

"We turn off all the safety checks. We want it to go three meters no matter what," Lewicki said.

Concerns remain

The engineering team's biggest fear was that Spirit would get caught on cables protruding from the lander. "The most dangerous driving we are going to do is the first three meters," he said.

The rover teams also were poring over recently completed calculations that pinpointed the lander's position on the Red Planet to within 30 meters (100 feet), and reconstructed its descent and landing.

The data were used to tweak the approach and landing plan for Spirit's twin, the rover Opportunity, which is set to land on the opposite side of the planet on January 24.

A reconstruction of the landing showed that Spirit's computers unexpectedly deployed the lander's parachute about a mile (1.6 km) lower than the targeted altitude. The craft was hurtling toward the ground at 920 miles per hour (1,480 kph) when the parachute opened 7.5 kilometers (4.6 miles) above the ground, said Rob Manning, entry descent and landing manager.

The spacecraft, shielded by airbags, bounced 28 times for nearly a minute before coming to rest about 300 meters from where it first hit the planet.

"It was an easy landing," Manning said. "You realize that robots have nerves of steel -- or nerves of copper wire."

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

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