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Mars Rover to Begin Taking Soil Samples This Week - 2004-01-11

NASA engineers say the Mars rover will begin taking its first soil samples as soon as it departs the landing platform.

Engineers say they expect the Mars rover to begin scooping up samples of Martian soil a day or two after the probe drives off the landing platform, a maneuver now set for Tuesday at the earliest. If the robotic arm encounters any rocks in the soil, mission managers say the rover, named Spirit, will analyze them as well.

"Things go extremely well," said John Callas, science manager for the Mars mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, "and I look forward to us being on the surface and commencing the really significant part of this mission, which is the surface exploration of Mars."

On Saturday, technicians finished unfolding the rover's six legs in preparation for its descent on to the surface of Mars.

They had hoped to guide the Spirit to the ground a day after the unfurling, but an airbag that helped cushion the rover's landing on Mars did not deflate as it was supposed to, and that blocked the vehicle's preferred exit path down a ramp. The rover now will be eased 40 centimeters down over the side edge of the lander.

NASA's John Callas says scientists have used the postponement as an opportunity to conduct some additional unplanned experiments, including taking additional high resolution pictures of the red planet's surface.

In two weeks, a second, identical space craft called the Opportunity will touch down on the opposite side of the planet with the same goal of searching for evidence of water, which is necessary to sustain life.