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Science & Space

Scientists celebrate Opportunity

By Marsha Walton

Mission managers Pete Theisinger, left, Richard Cook, center, and Jennifer Trosper, right, cheer Sunday's first images from the Mars rover Opportunity.
Mission managers Pete Theisinger, left, Richard Cook, center, and Jennifer Trosper, right, cheer Sunday's first images from the Mars rover Opportunity.

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NASA's second Mars rover Opportunity has landed on the other side of the red planet from it's twin rover Spirit. CNN's Miles O'Brien has more (January 25)
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PASADENA, California (CNN) -- Some wore their lucky shirts. Others kept up a tradition of eating peanuts during the nail-biting moments of a space mission.

Whatever the rocket scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory did, it worked.

The rover Opportunity joined its twin Spirit safely on the Martian surface about 12:05 a.m. ET Sunday. Spirit landed on the opposite side of Mars January 3.

"It was like the Mel Brooks movie 'High Anxiety,' " said NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said Sunday.

"I mean all the way through this, it was just incredible. All the challenges with Spirit in the past 48 to 72 hours meant everybody was also working through that," he said.

"As the old saying goes, it's far better to be lucky than good, but you know, the harder we work the luckier we seem to get," O'Keefe said.

The sleep-deprived scientists and engineers have had plenty to occupy them in the days leading up to Opportunity's landing. But that workload has been complicated by communications problems with the first rover that landed on the other side of Mars three weeks ago.

While mission managers have upgraded Spirit's status, there are still software and engineering questions to resolve before it is known how much of the craft is still working.

But the scientific crowd put those worries aside to celebrate Opportunity's arrival.

The last few minutes before landing, Opportunity went through a dizzying and complex series of maneuvers.

The craft approached the Mars surface at 12,000 miles per hour and had about four minutes to fire 57 pyrotechnic devices, pop out a parachute, drop off a heat shield, rappel down a tether, allow radar to start seeking the ground, inflate airbags, fire solid rockets, cut a tether and then start bouncing on Martian soil.

During that time there was no way ground controllers could intervene. It's completely automated.

"All we can do is listen and hope for the best," said Matt Golombek, one of the scientists responsible for choosing the landing sites for the two rovers.

"It's bouncing all right, we got the signal," said Golombek as he watched and listened to the control room commentary.

"All right, we're on Mars!" he said to a CNN television audience.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Vice President Al Gore were among about 1,000 VIP's who shared in the celebration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a chilly night in Pasadena. About 40 people got to overlook the control room as the clock ticked down to landing. Others watched from other areas of the facility on TV monitors.

Dennis Tito, the first "space tourist" was among those viewing.

"I feel privileged to be here to witness this landing," he said.

The director of JPL, Charles Elachi, said this second round of success was even sweeter than the first.

"It's hard to get lucky twice in three weeks," he said.

O'Keefe said after the success of Spirit, all eyes are on the U.S. space agency.

"We've had four billion hits on our Web site in the last 24 days. That means the entire world is watching," he said.

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