The new U.S. Spirit spacecraft on Mars has transmitted a sweeping three-dimensional panorama of nearby terrain to joyful scientists at mission control. The scientists have already selected a target they want the roving robot to explore when it sets off in several days.
Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California donned spectacles with red and blue lenses to peer at a three-dimensional black-and-white view of a broad swath of flat Martian terrain littered with rocks.
Mission scientist Matt Wallace said "I feel like I'm at a very bad 1950s [grade] B movie, actually."
In the foreground, an estimated 15 meters away, is a shallow 10-meter wide crater, one of several small ones in the area. Scientists have named it Sleepy Hollow, a reference both to their lack of rest and a 19th century American novel. Mission engineer Art Thompson said scientists might send the six-wheeled rover there on its first maneuver next week if subsequent color images do not show them something more tantalizing. "We're like kids at the candy store. We're no longer looking in the glass. We're at the case trying to decide which way to go. We can hardly wait until we get off the lander so we can start driving and doing fun stuff on the surface," he said.
The purpose of the mission is to analyze rocks for signs of water to determine if Mars could ever have supported life. The site where Spirit touched down, called Gusev Crater, is thought to be an ancient lakebed.
Mission scientist Steven Squyres of Cornell University says inspecting Sleepy Hollow will offer an opportunity to look at subsurface layers. But he said he is in no hurry to get the rover there until they have more experience driving it. "We haven't earned our Martian driver's licenses yet. Early on, we're going to be driving this vehicle very, very cautiously. It's the right thing to do. We've got unknown terrain beneath our wheels. We've got a vehicle that's completely different from anything that's ever been operated before. You know, if it takes a week to get to Sleepy Hollow, that's fine with me," he said.
In the meantime, the Spirit team is testing and calibrating the communications equipment and scientific instruments that will sense, scrape, and take close-up pictures of rocks. Mr. Squyres says he was afraid the impact of the landing might have damaged some of the hardware. But he noted that all of it tested well. "The good news keeps on coming!"
Some of the airbags deployed in the landing have not been fully retracted, a task engineers will attempt so they do not snag the rover wheels when it advances down the lander's ramp.
The rover is the size of a golf cart and will take three days to become operational. It is collapsed, as if in a squat. It must be raised and its front and back wheels fully extended before it rolls anywhere.
Spirit is being followed to Mars by an identical spacecraft named Opportunity, which will explore a smooth piece of territory on the other side of the red planet.