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<i>Spirit</i> Getting Ready to Roam the Red Planet - 2004-01-10

The U.S. robot rover Spirit is finally standing up on Mars and nearly ready to drive off the lander onto the red planet's surface. Surface exploration is just a few days away.

U.S. space agency engineers have finished raising the Spirit rover from a kneeling position, extending its six legs. They have also expanded the two forward and two rear legs outward to broaden the wheel base, making it more stable for the rocky Martian terrain.

Mission scientist Jennifer Trosper says the maneuvers complete the unpacking of the vehicle.

"Today is the day the Spirit rover finished its final unfolding on the surface of Mars," she said. "So it now stands full height and all six wheels are in their final position and ready to drive onto the surface of Mars. So It's a very big day for the Spirit rover."

Engineers had to compress the rover so it could fit inside the spacecraft that flew it on its seven-month journey from Earth. "Today we get to celebrate their endeavor to fit our square peg in our round or triangular hole," explained Ms. Trosper.

The unfolding of the Mars rover began soon after landing when solar panels were opened, antennas deployed, and a camera mast raised. The process of standing it up took the past two days, 12 explosive charges, and the activation of nine motors to release the legs and wheels from their packing configuration.

"Over the last couple of days Spirit has performed what really I think is a reverse robotic origami as it unfolded itself and really turned itself from a lander into a rover," said Chris Voorhees, the engineer who designed the process.

Before the rover can depart the lander platform to begin seeking signs of ancient water on Mars, engineers must fire another explosive charge to release a set of blades to cut last of three restraining cables.

Ms. Trosper says rover surface deployment could be as early as Tuesday, two days later than originally planned. The maneuver was delayed while engineers struggled but failed to retract the airbags used to cushion Spirit's landing.

The deflated bags partially block the preferred exit path down a front ramp. Mission officials believe the rover can clear them by a tiny margin, but do not want to take the chance of snagging its solar panels. So Jennifer Trosper says the plan is to rotate the rover one-third of a turn and advance it over the side edge of the lander, a 40-centimeter drop.

"The rover is currently facing south, and so we would be turning to the northwest in order to drive off," she said.

A second U.S. landing mission is only one week away. An identical spacecraft is to touch down on the opposite side of Mars with the same goal to search for evidence of ancient water that would have made the planet hospitable for life.

Pictures Courtesy NASA