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Mars rover Opportunity rolls off its lander

From Kate Tobin

The rear point of view from NASA's Mars rover Opportunity on Friday
The rear point of view from NASA's Mars rover Opportunity on Friday

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(CNN) -- The Mars rover Opportunity rolled off its lander early Saturday, beginning the next phase of its mission to study the rocks and soil of the Martian surface for signs of water.

At 3:25 a.m. ET, mission controllers sent the rover commands to move 10 feet (3 meters) down a ramp and onto the Martian soil.

Then nearly three hours later, Opportunity contacted the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, indicating it had successfully negotiated its exit from the lander.

An image from the rover showed the lander in the distance, with two track marks in the dirt trailing behind it. Opportunity is situated in an area called Meridiani Planum near Mars' equator.

The rover landed in the area Sunday and soon began sending back images showing exposed bedrock -- scientific paydirt for scientists who have likened Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, to robotic geologists.

Scientists chose the landing site because they have said they think it is full of iron-bearing hematite. The semiprecious mineral usually forms on Earth in the presence of water -- leading scientists to think that water once flowed there. The rovers' mission is to study rocks and soil to determine whether the cold, desert world once was a warm, wet planet.

Spirit landed on Mars nearly a month ago and has been exploring an area on the other side of the planet, about 6,600 miles (10,620 kilometers) from Opportunity, called the Gusev Crater.

Spirit rolled off its lander earlier this month. It has since been plagued with onboard computer malfunctions that for a time threatened to end its mission prematurely.

NASA released new images and scientific data from Spirit on Thursday and Friday, indicating the rover is back in business. Mission managers have expressed hope it will be operating normally within a few days.

Both rovers are equipped with eight cameras that are providing stunning panoramas of the Martian surface, with resolutions sharp enough to retain crisp detail when blown up to the size of a movie screen.

Their microscopes, spectrometers and drills could unlock geologic secrets from billions of years ago, when scientists think the red planet may have had conditions more suitable for life.

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