JEFFREY BROWN: It was just a 78-second trip of 10 feet, but it happened more than 100 million miles away. Last night, the rover known as Spirit rolled off its lander and onto the actual soil of Mars. Scientists back at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., rejoiced as they got the news that rover is ready to begin its quest for signs of water in the ancient history of Mars.
Joining us now is the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Charles Elachi.
Dr. Elachi, welcome. It sounds as though many of your fellow scientists were holding their collective breaths until Spirit actually rolled onto Martian soil. Tell us about it.
CHARLES ELACHI: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the key objective of the mission is to move around and look at rocks and look at soil, and therefore the mobility was a key element, you know, of this mission.
So after we landed and we got through the high-risk landing -- entry, descent and landing -- the next key event was to get the rover down on the ground, on Martian soil, and actually start this expedition of exploration and discovery.
JEFFREY BROWN: So there were some new pictures sent back right away. Let's look at the first one. This is rover looking ... the rover looking back at the landing. Tell us what we're seeing.
CHARLES ELACHI: Yeah. I mean, this was one of the nicest pictures that the engineers were waiting for that actually confirmed that we have gotten down off the lander. What you see in the background is a platform, which was effectively the lander.
You see the airbags on both sides, on the right as well as on the left. These are the airbags that we used to basically cushion the impact, you know, when we landed on the surface, and then they were deflated. You see the ramp down, which the rover actually drove down. This was not the original ramp that we intended to drive the rover on. The other one was forward, but because we saw airbags which were in the way, we rotated the rover by about 120 degrees and went down on a secondary ramp.
And the last thing you see, which was particularly exciting for us, I see the tracks on the ground, you know, of the rover. These are probably the most exciting tracks that anybody has seen. And that was really the message, that we were successfully on the surface, and we have ... the mobility has worked perfectly well.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, did the tracks provide any preliminary clues about the soil in that area?
CHARLES ELACHI: Yes. And the scientists are looking at them now in careful detail because they look like the soil has a certain compactness to it that was not expected. So one of the things that now the scientists are going to look at is what kind of consistency that the soil has, which keeps those tracks, you know, with such sharpness, because that's going to be one of the, if you want, the investigation that will be explored.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we have a second new picture of Spirit, this time looking straight ahead, out at Mars. Tell us about this one.
CHARLES ELACHI: That is correct. That's a forward-looking camera taken with what we call the hazcam camera. That's the hazards. This is an engineering camera. It has about 120-degrees field of view, so that's why you see kind of the horizon is kind of bent a little bit; that's because of the wide field of view.
You see on the front right a little bit, kind of a depression. That's what's called Sleepy Hollow; at least that's what the scientists called it because it was late at night when they started examining or they got this image. That's one of the area or similar area to that area that people would like to go and look at because that kind of gives you a feel about a little bit what's below the surface, like digging a little hole below the surface.
You see some of the rocks, which are in a little bit ahead of the rover. There are rocks similar to them a little bit to the left, and these are going to be one of the first targets -- you know, the ones to the left a little bit, just outside the picture, will be one of the first targets that we will roll the rover toward that point and make direct measurements on them.
JEFFREY BROWN: What happens next? What's next for the rover?
CHARLES ELACHI: Okay, the next thing, for the next day -- that means tonight and early tomorrow morning -- we are going to exercise the arm.
You know, there is an arm similar to your hand. At the end of it, there is a microscope; there are a number of instruments, like X-ray and Mossbauer instruments which tell us about the composition of the rock. And there is a rock abrasion tool, which actually basically polishes the rock.
It's a little bit like what the dentist uses, but it's much harder or much larger here. And what we are going to do is to test that arm, make sure that everything is operating properly, and then we'll stow it, and then two days from now, we'll start heading towards the first rock that we are going to be exercising and conducting science on.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when you're testing the robotic arm, is it actually digging in and touching the soil of Mars at this point?
CHARLES ELACHI: Not yet. The first thing we are going to do is to take that arm and have it turn around so we can look at that rock abrasion tool heading towards the camera, so we can look, you know, to make sure that everything is operating well.
We'll bring it close to the soil and do some measurements with the X-ray and the Mossbauer and the microscope, microscopic imager on the soil. But we are not going to be starting touching them yet or conducting abrasion experiments until another day or two, until we verify that all the engineering aspects are working nominally.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, remind us when it's looking at the soil, what exactly are you looking for?
CHARLES ELACHI: Well, what we are looking for is looking at the composition and the crystal structures. When we look at the rocks, it is the crystal structures we are looking at. When we looking at the soil, we are looking at the composition.
So what you'll be getting from these instruments ... it's like spectra, you know, in the sense, like color. And from looking at that color -- not exactly color like you see with your eyes -- by looking at the color, we can identify the composition, you know, of the material that we are looking for, looking at.
JEFFREY BROWN: So if all goes well, rover will start moving again in a few days. Is there a final destination?
CHARLES ELACHI: The destination now we have planned at least for the next few weeks. One of the areas of particular interest, it looks like there is a crater which is about a few hundred meters away. So after we look at a certain number of rocks, the idea is to go to the rim of that crater and look inside that crater. So again, think of the crater as a big hole which was dug out for us, you know, many million years ago, and that will allow us to see if we see any layering or any structure inside that crater.
Then after that, the scientists are going to be planning on a daily basis. As you look at the images of yesterday, then they plan the things for tomorrow. Our long-term objective is that within about 90 days we should be able to achieve all of the scientific objectives if everything goes nominal.
We expect the rover to survive significantly longer than, that maybe as much as 200 days, maybe longer. So the idea, then, is to really do exploration like the general public likes to see it, is to look at the next hill and want to go to the top of that hill and see what's behind it. So there we'll be pushing, you know, to go as fast as we can, you know, so to really do exploration, not only scientific, but also for public interest.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Dr. Charles Elachi, thank you very much.
CHARLES ELACHI: Sure, thank you.