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Mars in colour shared by world
( 2004-01-06 11:32) (Agencies)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has begun receiving high resolution colour photographs of Mars from the Spirit rover and was processing them for release Monday, officials said.

Justin Maki, Mars Exploration Rover (MER) imaging scientist, reviews new images sent down overnight from the Spirit rover on Mars at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. [AP Photo]

Scientists chalked up several new successes on the robot's first full day on Mars, including deployment of an antenna to transmit data directly to Earth and testing of instruments ahead of three months exploring the Martian surface.

Shortly after landing on Mars at noon Sunday Beijing time, Spirit began transmitting low-resolution black-and-white images taken with its navigational camera, giving the world a first glimpse at the rocky plain where it came to a rest in the Gusev crater, about 15 degrees south of the Martian equator.

Twenty-four hours later, NASA is receiving high-resolution, IMAX-quality colour images at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Technicians were putting together a mosaic of images to produce 360-degree views, the best photographs ever taken on Mars, for release later in the day.

The images were taken by Spirit's panoramic camera, mounted on a vertical telescopic arm, which essentially gives researchers a window onto Mars.

The camera will help mission managers choose which soils and rocks to analyze and decide where to guide the robot once it is put in motion.

The resolution of its images is three times superior to those produced during the 1997 Pathfinder mission, during which the mini-robot Sojourner moved a few (metres) on the Martian surface.

Another key task accomplished during the day was the deployment of Spirit's high-gain antenna, which will enable it to transmit data directly to Earth at a rate of 1,000 bits per second, and eventually at more than 11,000 bits per second.

Spirit is already using a UHF antenna that transmits data at 128,000 bits per second via the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Odyssey satellites, each of which passes above Spirit for several minutes once or twice during a Martian day.

Ready to roll off

Spirit is at the moment about 40 centimetres above the ground, perched on its lander platform, and the next nine days or so will be spent preparing for egress, or rolling off, onto the Martian surface.

"Spirit has told us that it is healthy. The egress path we're working toward is straight,'' said Jennifer Trosper, Spirit mission manager for operations on Mars' surface. The robot is well positioned to move onto the Martian surface, with no rocks in the way, she said.

NASA scientists are burning with impatience to start exploring.

Jennifer Trosper, Spirit Mission Manager for Surface Operations, looks at stereo images from the Spirit Rover on Mars, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, January 5, 2004. Spirit beamed panoramic images of unprecedented clarity back to Earth after establishing direct contact with NASA scientists guiding its search for ancient signs of life on Mars. [Reuters]

Spirit's successful landing bucked a trend of failed missions to the Red Planet. Just one in three past attempts to land on Mars has succeeded. British scientists said Sunday they would keep trying to contact their probe, the Beagle 2, which was supposed to land on Mars on Christmas.

NASA's last attempt to land on Mars, in 1999, ended in failure.

"For us to see a success here, at least at this point in the mission, is a source of pride for all Americans," said John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Scientists were trying to determine whether a large, dark object at one corner of the lander was a rock that could block the landing ramp. That would force the rover to turn 120 degrees and roll down another ramp.

Jennifer Trosper, Spirit's mission manager for surface operations, said early photographs suggest the object could also be a piece of one of the craft's air bags.

"If anything didn't go quite right, that may be it," Trosper said.

Spirit is one of two-identical six-wheeled robots expected to roam the planet for 90 days, analyzing rocks and soil for clues that could reveal whether the planet was ever a warmer, wetter place capable of sustaining life.

Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory let out whoops of joy and embraced one another when the first signals from the rover indicated it had survived the landing. Mars was 170.5 million kilometres from Earth at the time.

The US$820 million NASA Mars Exploration Rover project also includes a twin rover, Opportunity, which is set to reach Mars on January 24.

Engineers believed Spirit landed in Gusev Crater, a basin just south of the Martian equator. It should take scientists three or four days to pinpoint its location, said Steve Squyres, the mission's main scientist.

The rover relied on a heat shield, parachute and rockets to slow its descent to the surface, plus a cushion of balloons.

The descent took just six minutes.

"I got quoted a lot saying it would be six minutes from hell. It was six minutes from hell. In this case, we said the right prayers and got to heaven," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science.

While Mars today is a dry and cold world, river channels and other water-carved features suggest it may have had a more hospitable past.

The rovers were built to look for geologic evidence that water - a necessary ingredient for life - once persisted on the surface. A direct search for life on Mars is at least a decade away, NASA scientists said.

Scientists took advantage of the closest approach Mars has made to Earth in 60,000 years to send a small armada of spacecraft, including the missing Beagle 2, to the planet. A European satellite, the Mars Express, which ferried Beagle 2 to the planet, safely entered orbit.

Scientists in London said there would be four more chances for Mars Express to try to contact Beagle 2 later this week, starting Wednesday.

Chief Beagle scientist Colin Pillinger told British Broadcasting Corporation television that a failure by Mars Express to make contact could spell the end of the European mission.

Mars Express has joined two US orbiters, Mars Global Surveyor and 2001 Mars Odyssey, already circling the planet.

The US orbiters should act as data relays for the twin rovers.

NASA plans more probes to Mars at regular 26-month intervals, or each time the Earth laps the Red Planet as they travel around the sun.

Spirit's landing followed another important American space mission. On Friday, a NASA spacecraft flew past a comet to scoop up less than a thimbleful of dust that could shed light on how the solar system was formed.

Tiny sundial on board

The advanced technology of the Mars Rover came fully equipped with one of the simplest devices imaginable - a tiny sundial that can tell time on both Mars and Earth.

The 7.6-centimetre-square sundial, designed by a team that included Bill Nye the "Science Guy?of children's television and Hawaiian artist Jon Lomberg, was created as part of the Mars mission's educational effort. Written along its four sides is the word for 'Mars?in 17 languages, including the Hawaiian word for the planet, hokuula.

An image of the plate was among the first sent back from Mars after Spirit landed. The sundial has no hour marks because the rover will be moving around; the lines will be added electronically onto photos of the sundial.

"It's nice to think that something as simple as just a stick and a shadow will tell you where and when you are in the world - or on Mars," Lomberg said.

A Martian day is nearly the same length as Earth's, but a year there runs roughly twice as long as one on Earth.

Spirit's twin craft, Opportunity, has an identical sundial.

Both include a message to future explorers of Mars, which reads in part: "To those who visit here, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery."

Heavy Web traffic

A six-wheeled rover appeared on track to become the biggest Web draw in NASA history, just hours after it safely landed on Mars.

Traffic on websites operated by the NASA climbed steadily, as computer users around the world logged on to see the first images of Mars taken by the Spirit rover.

NASA recorded 109 million hits on its home page and related Web sites during the 24-hour period coinciding with the landing of Spirit on Mars. Nearly 17 hours after the successful landing, that figure had more than doubled, said Brian Dunbar, NASA's Internet services manager.

"As we put out more pictures, we'll continue to see that," Dunbar said of the steady growth in traffic. To support the onslaught, NASA is relying on 1,300 servers around the world to host Web pages containing details of the Spirit mission.

The loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew nearly a year ago and the landing of the Pathfinder spacecraft on Mars in 1997 each drew about 750 million hits. By midday Sunday, less than a day into a mission expected to last 90 days, Spirit-related websites were already at roughly one-third that tally.

NASA recorded 47 million hits during the busiest 24-hour period of the Pathfinder mission.

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