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Spirit reaches Martian hilltop

By Leonard David

Spirit rolls into position for a grand view atop Husband Hill as a dust devil scoots across the Gusev crater landscape.



National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration

( -- The Mars Spirit rover has reached a milestone moment in its exploration of the Red Planet.

Spirit has wheeled into position atop Husband Hill -- a range the rover first observed on the distant horizon from its Gusev crater landing site in January 2004.

Images being transmitted by Spirit showed a breathtaking view as it ascended to the hilltop.

"The view is really opening up," said Larry Crumpler, a member of the Mars rover science team. Mars rover science teams are prepared to do a "full summit campaign" of observations, he said.

Crumpler said in an earlier interview, once at the summit, one of the goals there will be to take a hard look at the basin to the south where one of the long term targets of interest -- an outcrop known as Home Plate -- is located.

Many on the rover science team are hungry to get a look at the possibly layered terrain on the east side of the basin on the way to Home Plate -- about a kilometer from Spirit's current location, and a trek that might take a few months, Crumpler noted.

On August 19, NASA released stunning new animation of dust devils scooting across the Martian surface.(Full story)

Spirit actually photographed the dust devils during its 543rd day (July 13, 2005) exploring Mars.

Dust devils are like miniature tornadoes, though how they develop is completely different. They are created by wind that swirls around a column of warm, rising air. The smallest variety can be kicked up by gentle breezes. More notable versions can be as wide as a house or a football field with winds up to 60 mph.

Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, reached Mars in January 2004 and are well beyond their initial mission timeline. Opportunity is currently exploring the plains of Meridiani.

Crumpler said that Spirit's summit arrival includes a bit of jockeying around.

Rover operators are scouting out the area for a prime picture-taking spot. It is from this slightly higher locale that the big and sweeping panorama images will be taken. Also, science will be carried out at this stop, Crumpler said.

Mars scientists hope to decipher the true makeup of Husband Hill. What exactly is this feature that Spirit is now perched atop?

"Gusev does not give up her secrets easily," said David Des Marais, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.

Images taken by Spirit of the surrounding scene show that the summit area is quite flat, Des Marais told, and is decorated with several drift deposits. "Interesting...but no revelations so far," he said.

All of the hypotheses about the origin of Husband Hill are still quite alive and well, Des Marais noted. They include:

  • A volcanic mount
  • Ancient layered crater floor deposits
  • Remnants of an uplifted crater rim with a mixture of materials having various origins.
  • "We will probably examine both the sandy deposits and rocks in the summit area," Des Marais said.

    "Perhaps our greatest opportunity to understand how Husband Hill formed will come when we examine the rocky units that orbital images indicate might adorn the southern flanks of the hill."

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