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Mars Rover Tests Equipment, Microscopic Camera

The U.S. spacecraft on the surface of Mars is testing its instruments, one by one, before setting out on its pioneering exploration of the martian surface.

The robot explorer Spirit left its landing platform and drove slowly onto the dusty red surface of the planet Thursday. Engineers have programmed the spacecraft to extend its mechanical arm Friday, and use a microscopic camera to take fine-grain pictures of the Martian soil.

The space agency NASA says such close-up photographs can provide essential information about how rocks and soil on Mars were formed, and that in turn can provide clues about what role water played in the planet's history.

Spirit is now parked about three meters from its landing platform, and will remain there for the next few days. Once NASA engineers confirm that all instruments are operating correctly, the rover will begin a slow six-week trip, slowly crawling over the Martian surface, collecting and analyzing soil, rock and atmospheric samples with cameras and three types of spectrometers.

Scientists hope the space probe will yield evidence that will prove whether Mars was once capable of supporting life.

The planetary explorer landed in a crater on Mars that many scientists believe is a dry lakebed.

A second U.S. spacecraft, called Opportunity, is heading for a Mars landing later this month, on the opposite side of the planet from the Spirit rover.