NASA rover rolls onto Mars
By Kate Tobin
View from Spirit after it rolled from its lander onto Mars' surface.
NASA announces rover Spirit has 'six wheels in the dirt' on Mars. (January 15)
Pandemonium erupts as Spirit makes a safe landing on Mars.
(CNN) -- A NASA robot rumbled from its lander onto the surface of Mars on Thursday, a crucial first step in a mission to investigate alien rocks and soil for evidence of water and perhaps life.
The short drive begins a trek that could take the craft to a variety of sites of scientific interest during the next three months, including shallow depressions and nearby hills that it observed in earlier photos.
The successful rolloff by Spirit, which came almost two weeks after its risky landing in Gusev Crater near the Martian equator, left mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory ecstatic.
"We have six wheels in the dirt. Mars now is our sandbox, and we are ready to play and learn. I have to tell you, I've never seen so many people so excited about just seeing two tracks in the dirt," said Charles Elachi, director of the Pasadena, California-based laboratory.
The test drive began with mission controllers sending a radio transmission to the $400 million machine, commanding it to move three meters (10 feet) down a ramp onto the surface.
Within 90 minutes, they received a signal from the golf cart-sized craft that it had successfully negotiated the exit. Soon afterwards, the rover sent back an image showing the lander in the distance and two track marks leading from it.
Mission managers had planned to roll Spirit off the front lander ramp, but a partly inflated airbag blocked the path and they decided to turn the rover and roll it down a rear ramp.
Their spirits lifted by the success of the rolloff, mission engineers and scientists opened up a bottle of champagne at a press conference well before dawn ET.
"I would like to make a toast to all of the people in this room who are on the team, and all the people who aren't in this room that are on the team that contributed to getting us six wheels on Mars. Your efforts are historical," said Jennifer Trosper, mission manager for Spirit's surface operations.
Project scientists have likened Spirit to a robotic geologist. Its field studies in Gusev Crater, a 100-mile-wide depression that satellite images suggest contained water in the past, could help determine whether the cold, dry red planet was once a much wetter, warmer world.
Spirit will first analyze rocks and soil near the lander, eventually making its way toward a mini-crater dubbed Sleepy Hollow, about 300 feet away. After exploring there it will head for a hilly area called the East Hill Complex.
"I cannot tell you that we are going to reach those hills," said Principal Investigator Steve Squyres earlier in the week.
It might be quite a challenge. The vehicle was designed to travel about 600 meters in three months, a little more than one-third of the mile. Mission managers think it can go much farther, but the hills are estimated to be five times that distance.
"So don't sit here and think, 'Oh, we're going to go to the hills.' We're going to go 'toward' the hills," Squyres said.
Squyres will also manage the scientific payload on Spirit's identical twin, Opportunity, which is scheduled to complete the 300-million-mile trip to Mars next weekend.
Opportunity will touch down on the opposite side of the planet in Meridiani Planum, a dark plain rich with deposits of an iron-related mineral that is usually produced around water.
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 rovers comes equipped with eight cameras designed to 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.
--CNN.com writer/editor Richard Stenger contributed to this report