Wed, Feb 11, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Rover sends home pictures of the litter it has left on Mars


NASA's Opportunity rover peeked over the rim of the crater in which it landed and was able to see the clamshell holder and parachute it discarded just before hitting the flat, gray surface of Mars, scientists said.

A color photograph from Opportunity, released at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, showed the two objects distinctly, on a largely featureless surface.

"There is the hardware that we've littered the surface with," Michael Malin, a member of the mission science team, said on Monday.

The rover was shielded by a clamshell-like device during its entry into the atmosphere of Mars.

The photograph, when combined with pictures taken from orbit, helped confirm exactly where Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 24.

NASA planned for its orbiting satellite to begin looking for another martian spacecraft, Britain's ill-fated Beagle 2 lander, on Thursday.

The lander, due to land on Mars on Christmas Day, has not been heard from since it separated from the European Space Agency's mother ship, Mars Express, in mid-December, despite efforts to contact it.

NASA described the gray photograph shown Monday as an "approximate true-color image." Mars' iron-rich dust gives the planet its overall reddish color, but Opportunity landed in a relatively dust-free area.

Scientists likened Opportunity's landing to a hole-in-one by a golfer who cannot see the hole. Cushioned by air bags, the rover bounced across the martian surface right into a small crater, where Opportunity has plenty of exposed rock in reach of its robotic geologic instruments.

Microscopic images of the curbsize outcropping that rims part of the crater show its fine layers hold numerous spherical granules, "embedded in it like blueberries in a muffin," Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres said.

The granules probably formed either when molten rock, spewed skyward in a volcanic eruption or following a meteor impact, cooled and solidified or when minerals, carried by ground water, slowly built up to form rounded features within the surrounding rock.

Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, are exploring opposite sides of the Red Planet on an US$820 million mission to look for geologic evidence that Mars was once a wetter place that might have been hospitable to life.

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