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Nearby rocks beckon Mars rover

NASA to clear ailing Spirit's computer

NASA's Andrew Knoll discusses the background photograph taken by the rover Opportunity. The slab of layered martian bedrock in the photo is just feet from the craft.
NASA's Andrew Knoll discusses the background photograph taken by the rover Opportunity.

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

(CNN) -- The golf cart-sized rover Opportunity, parked in a small Mars crater, unfolded more instruments and checked out its systems Tuesday as it prepares to roll off its platform in 10 to 14 days.

"We are about to embark on what arguably could be the coolest geological field trip in human history," said chief mission scientist Steve Squyres.

In the meantime, the rover sent a high-resolution panorama of a rocky outcrop on the rim of the crater around it. Some of the striped and broken slabs of bedrock are believed to be just 20 to 26 feet away.

"The beauty of it is, we can go there," Squyres said. "We can drive to this rock."

Along with the high-resolution black-and-white photograph of the outcrop, the scientists displayed Opportunity's first 3-D panorama of the rock outcrop.

The scientists hope that the rock outcrop, estimated to be about a foot high, can bring them closer to determining if Mars was once a wet planet and perhaps sustained life. Or if what seem to be sedimentary rocks are actually volcanic in origin.

"I think it's fair to say if it is volcanic, then all bets are off with regard to liquid water," said paleobiologist Andrew Knoll. "We simply wouldn't need liquid water to form the layering in that case.

"If it's sedimentary, then you need liquid water," he said. "I doubt these are windborne deposits."

Finding out that the rock is volcanic and the dirt on the surface -- the darkest ever photographed on Mars -- is ash would not, however, end the scientists' search for answers about the planet.

Researchers hope to learn a lot more about Mars with two rovers on the surface. But first, they have to get Opportunity's twin, Spirit, back on track.

Spirit -- parked 6,000 miles away on the rock-strewn surface of Gusev Crater -- is still having what are believed to be memory problems, said mission manager Jennifer Trosper. The rover is stuffed with files collected in the months since launch.

Trosper said the team is still checking out other possibilities in case the memory turns out not to be the problem, and has begun deleting unnecessary files to clear up space.

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