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Rover 'holds hands' with Barnacle Bill

Latest developments:

July 7, 1997
Web posted at: 3:40 p.m. EDT (1940 GMT)

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- The Sojourner rover has begun its analysis of Martian rocks, sitting face-to-face Monday with a lumpy rock dubbed "Barnacle Bill" by NASA scientists.

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The rover traveled only a foot across the powdery red soil of Mars to reach Barnacle Bill. Its spectrometer made contact with the rock on the first try, despite scientists' fears that the rock's angles would prevent the rover from getting in the right position for a good reading.

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"Sojourner and Barnacle Bill are holding hands," deputy project manager Brian Muirhead told The Associated Press late Sunday as a television feed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory showed the six-wheeled rover up against a pockmarked rock.

The slow-moving Sojourner, which creeps just 1 centimeter a second, began its descent down ramps to the Martian surface early Sunday morning.

It later plunged its spectrometer into the dust at the bottom of the ramp, beginning NASA's up-close chemical examination of the planet. The soil analysis has not yet been released by NASA.

Sojourner can stay in touch with the lander up to 300 feet away. For the time being, however, the rover's control team plans to keep Sojourner from roving very far.

"We'll probably be sticking close to the lander early on and getting the easiest science opportunities out first," said Brian Cooper, who "drives" the rover from 120 million miles away using a computer screen, a joy stick and three-dimensional goggles.

Because of distance and the delay in sending commands, Cooper does his navigation while Sojourner is sleeping, using images sent from the lander for guidance. The information is stored and sent later, so the rover usually moves while Cooper snoozes.

'Sniffer' taking closer look at rock

After bumping up against Barnacle Bill -- which got its name because of barnacle-like structures that appeared in images beamed back to Earth -- Sojourner activated its APXS, short for alpha proton X-ray spectrometer. The device, referred to colloquially by the JPL team as the "sniffer," will allow scientists on Earth to determine the chemical composition of the rock.

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The rover was programmed to spend 10 hours nosing up against Barnacle Bill. The first information from APXS is expected to arrive on Earth late Monday afternoon.

The next stop for the 22-pound mobile geologist? Probably a larger nearby rock, which JPL workers nicknamed "Yogi," for more sniffing.

The camera on Pathfinder also is returning valuable geological information in the form of detailed photos of the landscape showing possible watermarks on hills, and horizontal bands that could have been shaped by water.

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Mars is thought to have had water, a vital component of life, on its surface billions of years ago. That water could have been lost to space, or it could still be on Mars today, frozen underground and in the polar caps.

"Mars may even be more water-rich than Earth is. We really don't know," project scientist Matthew Golombek said.

Sojourner's cameras also will be taking the first images of Pathfinder's landing craft, the Sagan Memorial Station, so NASA scientists can learn more about how it handled its crash landing onto the Martian surface.

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Deployment of the rover was delayed a day after a communications link between Sojourner and the Sagan station failed to work properly. NASA scientists say they still don't know what caused the glitch. They said Sunday that about 80 percent of the information is now getting through.

Rover engineer Matt Wallace said getting the rover off the lander and onto the Martian surface was one of the most difficult hurdles in Sojourner's mission. With that now behind them, the rover team plans to spend the next few days getting a feel for navigating the craft on the fourth rock from the sun.

"Certainly, we will continue to expect surprises in some sense," said Jacob Matijevic, Mars rover manager. "I think the first couple of days here is an opportunity for us to sort of test some things out with the vehicle, give us a little bit of experience in driving on the surface and getting to various locations."

Miami Bureau Chief John Zarrella contributed to this report.

 
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