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Mars scientists settle in for high-science


'The thrill is not gone'

July 9, 1997
Web posted at: 7:58 p.m. EDT (2358 GMT)

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PASADENA, California (CNN) -- After several days of surprises and joy at their technological success, the Mars Pathfinder mission team shifted gears and settled Wednesday into savoring the details of high-science.

At their daily news conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Wednesday, three mission scientists discussed in great detail and with obvious relish the composition of a single rock and their plans for analyzing others.

While the discussion was animated and articulate, it was not the sort of thing that makes headlines, and eventually a reporter asked if perhaps the scientists had "come down from your high?"

View a 360 degree panorama from Pathfinder on Mars
Image courtesy NASA

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NASA briefing on the latest pictures from Mars
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Peter Smith explains the panoramic pictures returned from the lander
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Dr. Matther Golombek explains the rover movement
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"The science is just beginning," said Peter Smith, a principal investigator for the imaging project. "Day by day, the interpretation is getting more and more sophisticated.

"We've had tremendous discussion and a lot of imaginative ideas about what is forming these rocks. I'd say the excitement is building among the scientists."

Rover cozies up to Yogi rock

Among the things that stirred their excitement were:

  • The discovery that the rock known as Barnacle Bill appears to be composed of the same material, rather than an aggregate of several rock fragments.

    Dr. Jeff Johnson of the U.S. Geological Survey said unless the rock later proves to be composed of especially fine particles, its composition "gives credence to a volcanic hypothesis."

    In other words, it could have been created by a volcano.

  • The Sojourner rover successfully "crabbed" sideways to reposition itself near a rock called Yogi. It took photos of Yogi from its front and rear cameras, took some photos of the lander, then was left overnight with its alpha proton X-ray spectrometer buried in the Martian soil like an electronic aardvark to collect data.

  • A panoramic black-and-white photograph shot by a camera on the lander showed what Johnson described as the "rough, tortured-looking" rock and soil in the Ares Vallis depression.

Among the features were a modest arroyo that appeared to contain wind-blown sand, a low hill that proved to be the edge of a crater several miles away and, on the horizon, a faint, conical peak believed to be about 1,900 feet (576 meters) high.

Project scientist Matthew Golombek said the crater was not a volcanic crater, but an "impact" crater from a meteorite.

It was also revealed that several reporters had seen the panorama in color on high density television while wearing 3-D glasses, and found the view to be stunning.

White rocks interest scientists

When the Sojourner rover is done with its analysis of the rock known as Yogi and its environs, Golombek said it will move on to other rocks. Two that particularly interest the team have been called Scooby Doo and Casper.

"They appear to be white, to our amazement," Golombek said. "Any white rock is of tremendous interest because it implies differentiation of product. Whether they are volcanic or sedimentary, they are of tremendous interest."

Golombek also said the Hubble Telescope will be taking pictures of Mars over the next three days, and the photos will be compared with those taken from the planet's surface.

Golombek said the hope is that they will be able to resolve why, from space, Mars' atmosphere appears to be clear, but from the planet's surface "we find it dusty."

Asked when pictures of Earth might be taken, Smith said, "Earth is not well-positioned to take what we want to take. Maybe in a week or so."

'Gee whiz value'

The lander

He added that while such a picture is not a high priority scientifically, it does have "gee whiz value."

Golombek addressed the "gee whiz" issue himself, noting that 85 megabits of information were downloaded overnight.

"You've got 70 investigators here who are like kids in a candy store," he said. "They're at the end of a fire hose of data. The thrill is not gone."

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