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Mars rover takes 'Sunday drive' across red planet
( 2004-01-20 12:28) (Agencies)

After a weekend of driving that took it about 10 feet across the surface of Mars, the Spirit rover was parked on Monday in front of a rock that NASA scientists plan to study for much of the next week.

Though Spirit is capable of moving more quickly across the rugged surface of the red planet, the six-wheeled craft spent 30 minutes traveling to the rock, nicknamed "Adirondack" by project managers, because like any Earth-bound tourist it stopped repeatedly to take pictures.

"We went for a little Sunday drive," joked mission manager Mark Adler.

The scientists believe that the pyramid-shaped Adirondack, which is about the size of an American football, is most likely basalt, spewed onto the surface of Mars hundreds of millions of years ago by a volcano.

If so, Adirondack is not particularly unusual for Mars, which is in part why project managers chose it as Spirit's first object for detailed geologic study as they hunt for evidence of past water -- and life -- there.

In the coming days, Spirit will reach out with its robotic arm to examine Adirondack with microscopic imagers and spectrometers. Then the rover will use the same arm to drill a tiny hole in the surface and give scientists a glimpse of its interior.


Researcher Dave Des Marais said Adirondack will serve as a kind of "time capsule" into the past of Mars, which will allow the science teams to better understand how the rock was formed and what the planet was like millions of years ago.

Adirondack will also be a good test of Spirit's geology tools, which will then be used on other rocks and soils to establish a better database about the planet, Des Marais said.

When scientists finish with Adirondack, the golf cart-sized explorer will further explore its surroundings in Gusev Crater, a barren, wind-swept basin about the size of Connecticut that scientists believe may have been the site of an ancient lake bed once fed by a Martian river.

Spirit, which bounced onto the Martian surface two weeks ago after a six-month journey through space, rolled off its lander on Thursday. Since its Jan. 3 landing, Spirit has sent back stunning, three-dimensional, color photographs of Mars revealing the planet's terrain in unprecedented detail.

Project managers say the mission had gone so well that they will consider extending it beyond the scheduled three months once Spirit's twin rover -- Opportunity -- lands on the opposite side of the planet, expected on Jan. 24.

The twin Mars rover missions, which if successful will provide NASA with a much-needed shot in the arm, have taken on additional importance in light of President Bush's announced plans to ultimately send humans there.

Spirit is the fourth probe ever to successfully land on Mars, following in the footsteps of two Viking landers in the 1970s and the Pathfinder mission in 1997. More than half of man's missions to the red planet have ended in failure.

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