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Scientist: Mars rock photo shows 'Holy Grail'

Opportunity rover sends high-detail image of landing site

A picture taken by the rover Opportunity shows the martian landscape near the craft.
A picture taken by the rover Opportunity shows the martian landscape near the craft.

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CNN's Miles O'Brien reports that while NASA's Spirit rover is in rehab, Opportunity is sitting near rock formations on Mars that could be a 'Holy Grail' for geologists.
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Meridiani Planum
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- While NASA's Spirit rover is in rehab, its twin, Opportunity, is sitting near rock formations on the other side of Mars that could be a "Holy Grail" for geologists, mission scientists said Monday.

Opportunity, on its third day on Mars, sent the Earth-bound mission managers an 8,000-by-3,000-pixel, 180-degree image of the area in front of it -- an image that could be zoomed in tight enough to identify individual grains of the dust covering the surface.

"This is like a Holy Grail for geologists to be able to see these incredible rocks," said Jim Bell, the team's leading camera specialist. "There's a lot more coming, and we couldn't be happier, more thrilled, with what we're seeing at this incredible landing site."

The scientists -- particularly the geologists -- are practically giddy with Opportunity's "interplanetary hole-in-one" landing spot inside a small impact crater, just a few feet from the first bedrock formation ever seen on the red planet.

The crater is about 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep, a depth that is unlikely to prevent the six-wheeled rover from leaving the crater for a wider exploration -- particularly of a significantly larger crater believed to be nearby.

Opportunity's Meridiani Planum 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.

Principal investigator Steve Squyres called the spot "the hematite capital of the solar system."

"There are some coarse gray grains, and then much finer red stuff," Squyres said, "and the other thing is, there are aggregates that have that gray color, but when you squish them they turn red. Everybody's having a wonderful time arguing about what it is."

The "squishing" effect, Squyres said, was evident in the imprints left on the surface where Opportunity bounced on landing.

More than 6,000 miles from Opportunity, the ailing Spirit, on its 23rd day on the planet, rested in the very different landscape of Gusev Crater, covered in reddish dust and scattered small rocks.

"Spirit is doing better," mission manager Jennifer Trosper said. "It's kind of like we have a patient in rehab."

Spirit operated beyond the scientists' dreams until its 18th day on Mars, when it suddenly stopped sending anything more than tones back to Earth letting scientists know it was still there. Spirit's problem was "associated with our ability to collect and maintain data" -- information needed to diagnose the rover's ailment, Trosper said.

After several days of attempts, though, the scientists made contact and persuaded Spirit to send data. What they got wasn't much -- and initially gave researchers an erroneous date of 2053.

Trosper said the problem appeared to be that the rover's flash memory couldn't handle the number of files it was storing. The jam-up, she said, apparently kept Spirit from shutting down properly and performing a number of functions that normally originated in its flash memory.

Scientists are still analyzing the data, she said, but would begin deleting unnecessary files to test that theory.

She pointed out that the scientists had thoroughly tested the rover's systems on Earth, but that the longest trial for the file system was nine days, half of the 18 days Spirit operated before running into the problem.

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