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Rover yields 3-D view

NASA unveiled a breathtaking colour snapshot on Tuesday of the surface of Mars shot by its Spirit rover using a camera with the robotic equivalent of 20/20 vision.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2004 16:04 IST
Andrew Bridges (Associated Press)
Andrew Bridges (Associated Press)

NASA unveiled a breathtaking colour snapshot on Tuesday of the surface of Mars shot by its Spirit rover using a camera with the robotic equivalent of 20/20 vision. The new colour image is the sharpest photograph ever taken on the surface of Mars. NASA scientists called the picture a "postcard," sent across 169 million kilometres of space to Earth from its Spirit rover.

The image is actually a mosaic of 12 separate pictures shot by Spirit's high-resolution panoramic camera, or Pancam. It covers a 45-degree field of view of the terrain in Gusev Crater, where Spirit landed late on Saturday.

"Trenching into this stuff will be an absolute blast," Steven Squyres, the mission's main scientist, said while describing the image of smooth and angular rocks and soil near the rover landing site.

The image is a taste of bigger and better pictures to come. The postcard makes up just one-eighth of a sweeping colour panorama Spirit continues to shoot. It should be transmitted to Earth over the next week.

After a flawless landing on the Red Planet, the rover has snapped images of a barren, rock-strewn landscape scientists hope will yield clues to whether Mars was once hospitable to life. NASA on Monday released a 3-D, black-and-white picture that provided a 360-degree look at the desolate, wind-swept plains of Mars' surface.

"I feel like I'm at a bad, '50s B-movie," mission manager Matt Wallace after reporters were issued 3-D glasses to take in the image at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Guided by the high-resolution image, NASA scientists selected the first target on Mars they want Spirit to explore: a dusty depression nicknamed "Sleepy Hollow" that lies about 12 metres from where the rover landed. They believe the nine-metre-diameter depression is a dust-filled impact crater, one of dozens that pock an otherwise flat landscape.

"It's a window" to Mars' ancient past, said Squyres. The golf cart-size Spirit alighted on Mars in what scientists believe was a near-perfect landing with giant airbags as cushions. It marked NASA's first visit to the planet's surface since Pathfinder in 1997. The $820 million unmanned project also includes a twin rover, Opportunity, set to land on the opposite side of Mars on January 24.

Other missions to Mars have ended in spectacular failure, with some spacecraft crashing or blowing to pieces. Just one in three past attempts to land on the planet 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.

The 3-D images also show a cluster of hills on the horizon, thought to be less than three kilometres away. Over the next three months, Spirit will look for geologic evidence that Mars was once warmer, wetter and perhaps more conducive to life. Scientists continued to perform health checks on the rover. A science instrument to analyse minerals in rocks and soil had malfunctioned on the way to Mars but was found to be in perfect working order.

There were a few minor concerns: The current in one of two motors that drive the rover's high-gain antenna was spiking intermittently, and dustier-than-expected conditions meant Spirit's solar panels were generating just 83 per cent of the expected amount of power. Neither condition threatened the overall mission, NASA said. Scientists determined that two objects believed to be rocks partially blocking the ramp Spirit will use to roll down to the surface are actually bits of air bag. NASA planned to retract the air bags to clear the way.

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First Published: Jan 22, 2004 15:21 IST