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NASA scientists want Mars Rover 'down in dirt'
( 2004-01-08 11:41) (Agencies)

The U.S. robotic rover on Mars has suffered some minor technical problems that will delay by three days its planned landing pad roll-off to search for signs of water in an arid rock-strewn crater, officials at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said on Wednesday.

The rover Spirit now is set to drive onto the rocky, wind-scoured surface of Mars next Wednesday, or "sol 12" in Mars time, a development that has scientists "champing at the bit" to "get down in the dirt and take some measurements," geologist Ray Arvidson said.

Spirit is equipped with an array of cutting-edge scientific tools on its movable arm that will allow the NASA team to take the closest look yet at the mineral composition of the Martian soil and landscape.

Arvidson said the science team was studying high resolution color photos taken by the rover's twin panoramic cameras, as well as data from a mass spectrometer to determine where the rover would go first in its search for signs of water in the rocks and soil. The team chose to land inside the massive Gusev Crater because they believe it once held a lake.

"Once we egress we want to stop and drop and make measurements that have never been made before," he said. "There's a lot to do in the immediate vicinity of the lander just to see what is there."

Meanwhile, NASA administrators took time during "sol four," the rover's fourth day on the red planet, to dedicate the rover's landing site to the memory of the crew of the space shuttle Columbia, who perished last February when the spacecraft broke apart while re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

"In our personal lives in moments of great joy ... we often remember and long for lost members of our family," Firouz Naderi, Mars program manager, told reporters on Wednesday. "And so it is in this moment of triumph in our professional lives that we remember members of our NASA family that we lost with the space shuttle Columbia."

NASA engineers designed a plaque for the rover's main antenna memorializing the seven-member Columbia crew, and the landing site was named the Columbia Memorial Station.

Two glitches in Spirit's otherwise flawless performance have delayed the rover's first drive off the lander by three days. On Tuesday night, NASA engineers fixed a "stickiness" that hampered their efforts to point the rover's main antenna directly at Earth.

The team planned to retract two airbags that blocked the six-wheeled rover's exit path with a "lift and retract" maneuver on Wednesday night, or sol five, Art Thompson, rover technical lead, said.

Another NASA team was keeping an eye on a retreating dust storm that could cause problems for the Jan. 25 landing of Spirit's twin, Opportunity, which is headed for the opposite side of the planet.

Spirit is the fourth probe to successfully land on Mars, following in the footsteps of two Viking landers in the 1970s and the Pathfinder mission in 1997.

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