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Opportunity made 'interplanetary hole-in-one'

After safe landing in crater, rover beams home pictures

The Opportunity rover sent this image taken during its descent through the Martian atmosphere.
The Opportunity rover sent this image taken during its descent through the Martian atmosphere.

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CNN's Miles O'Brien reports that NASA's Mars rover Opportunity is sending a 'treasure trove' of fresh data.
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Mars rover Opportunity lands on the red planet. CNN's Miles O'Brien reports.
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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- The Mars rover Opportunity is sending fresh data, including new photographs taken on the vehicle's parachute trip to the planet's surface, to mission control.

Enthusiastic scientists told reporters that the rover, which touched down in a small crater on the red planet, was in "excellent condition" and that its landing site was unique.

"What we have done here is landed in a geological unit fundamentally different than anywhere else on Mars," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for the science instruments on Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit.

Squyres said the terrain is darker than at any previous Mars landing site and has the first accessible bedrock outcropping ever seen on the red planet. The bedrock layers should yield valuable information, he said.

Engineers were marveling over the new set of photographs, which show a different landscape from the one seen in the images captured by Spirit on the other side of the planet.

The pictures revealed large white outcroppings amid a darker gray soil, not at all like Spirit's Gusev Crater landscape of reddish dust with scattered small rocks. The rovers are designed to study rocks and soil samples to try to learn about the planet's past.

A scientist described the photographs taken on the vehicle's parachute landing as "fantastic."

One descent photograph showed a large crater in a group of much smaller craters, and another showed the shadow of Opportunity's parachute near the large crater.

"My fondest hope after looking at these pictures from orbit before we landed was that we would land someplace where we would be close enough to a crater that we would have a chance of traversing to it and actually getting to the layered material," Squyres said.

"Instead what has happened is we have scored a 300-million-mile interplanetary hole-in-one, and we are actually inside a small impact crater."

Opportunity began sending images and other data to mission control just after 3 p.m. Sunday ET (2000 GMT). The information was relayed via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Mission control plans to compare the new pictures with photos of the planet taken by orbiting missions to determine where Opportunity landed.

Opportunity is a replica of Spirit but was programmed to land about 6,600 miles (10,620 kilometers) away on the opposite side of the planet, in an area known as the Meridiani Planum -- a smooth plain near Mars' equator.

Its landing site was chosen because it is believed to be full of iron-bearing hematite. The semi-precious mineral usually forms on Earth in the presence of water -- leading scientists to think that water once flowed there.

Spirit is 'still a sick child'

Opportunity arrived safely on the red planet at 12:05 a.m. Sunday ET (0505 GMT). Staffers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory burst into cheers as Opportunity's first images of a new part of Mars appeared on their monitors.

"We're on Mars, everybody," mission scientist Wayne Lee said as fellow members monitoring the landing at mission control burst into applause. (Scientists celebrate Opportunity)

The Mars rover Spirit is shown in this NASA drawing.
The Mars rover Spirit is shown in this NASA drawing.

The touchdown came as Spirit was being coaxed through technical problems.

Despite recent glitches, Spirit is expected to continue its mission.

"We still have a sick child," project manager Pete Theisinger said.

On Saturday, Theisinger said Spirit's condition "has been upgraded from critical to serious."

The rover is probably "three weeks away from driving," he said, as engineers study the problems and try to correct them.

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