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Mars rover stretches arm, snaps micro-pictures

NASA researchers 'up to their eyeballs in new data'

By Marsha Walton

Spirit reached out its arm to meet up with the martian soil for the first time.
The Spirit rover reaches for Martian soil for the first time.

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(CNN) -- The Mars rover Spirit stretched its robotic arm over Martian soil Friday, and its microscopic imager is capturing even-higher-resolution images than the ones sent back after landing.

A black-and-white image beamed back to Earth shows in exhaustive detail an inch-and-a-half square of the red planet's silty surface.

"The science team is extremely fortunate to be up to their eyeballs in new data," NASA's Rob Sullivan said Friday during a news conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Spirit's arm is about the length of a human arm. It has five joints that allow it to move in many directions, and the instruments attached allow the rover to function as a robotic geologist.

The microscopic imager sent back pictures good enough to see soil down to the size of a grain of sand. When the other tools on the arm are cranked up, astronomers and geologists hope to get a much better idea of the makings of Mars' soil.

Scientists are expected to focus first on the soil that has been displaced by the rover's six aluminum wheels. Soil that has been churned up can provide clues about the size of its particles and how cohesive the mixture is.

As additional instruments on Spirit's arm are put into action, scientists may get a better idea if water evaporated from the planet or if Mars might have supported life.

"It's hard to describe our emotions. We are elated and relieved at how well things are going," said Ken Herkenhoff, the lead scientist for the microscopic imager on Spirit.

This weekend two more instruments, the Mossbauer and alpha particle X-ray spectrometers, are expected to begin analyzing the chemistry of the rocks and soil. The fourth instrument on the robotic arm is a rock abrasion tool, designed to grind and analyze stones.

Spirit is expected to spend three more days parked close to the lander, while its instruments are checked and NASA decides what route it should take across the Martian surface. The robot is expected to move a few dozen yards each day.

While many sleep-deprived scientists are poring through the early data from Spirit, others are making final preparations for its rover twin, Opportunity, to land January 24. Opportunity is heading for the other side of the planet.

In the next few days, space meteorologists will decide where the second rover should land, taking care to keep it from dust storms that could threaten its arrival.

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