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Press Release

January 4, 2004

Spirit Lands On Mars and Sends Postcards

A traveling robotic geologist from NASA has landed on Mars and returned stunning images of the area around its landing site in Gusev Crater.

Mars Exploration Rover Spirit successfully sent a radio signal after the spacecraft had bounced and rolled for several minutes following its initial impact at 11:35 p.m. EST (8:35 p.m. Pacific Standard Time) on January 3.

"This is a big night for NASA," said NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. "We're back. I am very, very proud of this team, and we're on Mars."

Members of the mission's flight team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., cheered and clapped when they learned that NASA's Deep Space Network had received a post-landing signal from Spirit. The cheering resumed about three hours later when the rover transmitted its first images to Earth, relaying them through NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.

"We've got many steps to go before this mission is over, but we've retired a lot of risk with this landing," said JPL's Pete Theisinger, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Project.

Deputy project manager for the rovers, JPL's Richard Cook, said, "We're certainly looking forward to Opportunity landing three weeks from now." Opportunity is Spirit's twin rover, headed for the opposite side of Mars.

Dr. Charles Elachi, JPL director, said, "To achieve this mission, we have assembled the best team of young women and men this country can put together. Essential work was done by other NASA centers and by our industrial and academic partners.

Spirit stopped rolling with its base petal down, though that favorable position could change as airbags deflate, said JPL's Rob Manning, development manager for the rover's descent through Mars' atmosphere and landing on the surface.

NASA chose Spirit's landing site, within Gusev Crater, based on evidence from Mars orbiters that this crater may have held a lake long ago. A long, deep valley, apparently carved by ancient flows of water, leads into Gusev. The crater itself is basin the size of Connecticut created by an asteroid or comet impact early in Mars' history. Spirit's task is to spend the next three months exploring for clues in rocks and soil about whether the past environment at this part of Mars was ever watery and suitable to sustain life.

Spirit traveled 487 million kilometers (302.6 million) miles to reach Mars after its launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on June 10, 2003. Its twin, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, was launched July 7, 2003, and is on course for a landing on the opposite side of Mars on Jan. 25 (Universal Time and EST; 9:05 p.m. on Jan. 24, PST).

The flight team expects to spend more than a week directing Spirit through a series of steps in unfolding, standing up and other preparations necessary before the rover rolls off of its lander platform to get its wheels onto the ground. Meanwhile, Spirit's cameras and a mineral-identifying infrared instrument will begin examining the surrounding terrain. That information will help engineers and scientists decide which direction to send the rover first.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington.

U.S. Rover Lands on Mars, Strong Signal Heard

PASADENA, Calif. (Reuters) - A U.S. spacecraft carrying a robotic rover designed to search for signs of life on Mars arrived safely on Saturday, capping an almost seven-month space journey and dangerous six-minute final plunge through the hostile Martian atmosphere.

Reuters Photo

AP Photo Photo
AP Photo
Slideshow Slideshow: Mars Exploration


The spacecraft carrying the Spirit rover made its touchdown on the red planet known by sending back a series of tones to scientists at NASA (news - web sites)'s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The control room erupted in cheers and smiles each time the spacecraft appeared to hit its marks during the six-minute entry sequence but turned to tense silence as flight engineers frantically searched for a signal from Spirit.

The craft broke several minutes of radio silence at 8:52 p.m. PST (11:52 EST) to announce it had survived its perilous journey through the Martian atmosphere and had arrived at its designated landing site in a massive impact crater.

Signals from the spacecraft showed it had landed on its base, as project managers had hoped, capping an approach to the planet that appeared to be textbook-perfect.

The presence of NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe made clear that the $820 million mission's success was of utmost importance to the U.S. space agency, which had seen its last two Mars missions end in failure because of software and mathematical errors.

The spacecraft entered Mars' atmosphere at about 7:29 p.m. PST (10:29 p.m. EST) after an approach that took the spacecraft from a top speed of 12,000 mph to a full stop in six minutes.

To arrive intact on the planet's surface, the spacecraft had to deploy a parachute, jettison its heat shield, and fire retro rockets to slow a descent that officials predicted could be "hell."

A final drop of about four stories was cushioned by giant airbags, which allowed the lander to bounce across the bleak Martian landscape for up to half a mile before coming to rest inside the giant Gusev crater.

Inside the lander is the Spirit rover, a golf-cart sized mobile geology laboratory that will study the rocks and soil on Mars for evidence of water and past or present life.

Project managers said the landing was the riskiest part of a mission that began with launch in June.

Earlier, optimistic scientists from the space agency said their craft appeared to be hurtling toward a "bulls-eye" touch-down.

The scientists had made final adjustments to the parachute deployment to accommodate a dust storm blowing on Mars, but found themselves on such a perfect course that they could scrap more navigation maneuvers.

"Today is a great day to land on Mars," deputy mission manager Mark Adler told reporters.

Spirit's arrival was the climax of a weekend of interplanetary discovery after a U.S. spacecraft on Friday gathered particles from a comet in a first that could give scientists clues about how Earth began.

Project managers picked Gusev, an impact crater bigger than Connecticut, in part because they believed it may have once held a lake.

"We couldn't have possibly hoped to do better," said Louis D'Amario, Mars Exploration Rover navigation team chief. "This is essentially hitting the bulls-eye. We're very happy."


Though the unexpected dust storm was blowing on the other side of the planet from where Spirit was due to land, the scientists said it had warmed and thinned the upper Martian atmosphere, prompting them to plan on an earlier deployment of the parachute.

A second rover, nicknamed Opportunity, is expected to land on the other side of the Red Planet in three weeks.