The U.S. Mars rover has driven off its landing platform onto the Red Planet's soil, nearly two weeks after arriving. It was a short maneuver, but an emotional one for the mission team.
Mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California commanded the Spirit rover to drive forward three meters, dropping all six of its wheels firmly onto Martian terrain.
Mission official Rob Manning says, soon after, the rover confirmed its successful deployment by transmitting a picture looking back at the landing platform, and showing its track marks in the dirt.
"That is the image we are waiting for," he said. "We are now on Mars. Our wheels are finally dirty. This is very exciting. Ah, what a relief!"
The rover began the process of seeking the Sun with is panoramic camera. This allows it to calculate the Sun's position, so it can realign its antenna to Earth.
The deployment was delayed three days. An airbag used to cushion Spirit's landing nearly two weeks ago could not be fully retracted, and the airbag continued to block the preferred landing pathway down a front ramp. So mission technicians rotated the rover clockwise about one third of a turn to depart down a secondary ramp.
For many on the mission team, the rover's advance onto Martian dirt was the culmination of three years of effort. They toasted with champagne, after Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Charles Elachi offered his congratulations.
"Spirit is ready to start its mission of exploration and discovery," he said. "We have six wheels in the dirt. Mars now is our sandbox, and we are ready to play and learn. I have to tell you, I have never seen so many people so excited about just seeing two tracks in the dirt."
Engineers will spend the next three or four days checking the vehicle's instruments, before mission scientists direct it to collect soil and rock samples.
Mission flight director Chris Lewicki jokingly laments having to turn control of the rover over to the researchers.
"So, now is the time when we hand over the keys," he said. "We got to drive the nice sports car, but in the end, we are just valets bringing it around the front and handing it over to the science team!"
The scientist are seeking chemical evidence that water once flowed on Mars and that the planet could have supported life. Their plan is to investigate the surface at the landing site, before moving outward a few meters a day during the next three months.
An identical companion rover is scheduled to touch down in a little more than one week on the other side of the Red Planet to conduct a similar search for signs of ancient water.