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Second NASA Rover Lands on Mars; Spirit Prognosis Improves

BY Admin  January 26, 2004 at 1:15 PM EDT

The prognosis for the other spacecraft, which stopped transmitting data last week, also improved as scientists continued to narrow down the cause of the glitch.

Opportunity bounced down to the surface of Mars in an area called the Meridiani Planum, where scientists had detected a chemical signature that water may have left. Both rovers were sent to determine if water, one of the key ingredients for life, once existed on Mars.

The first images from Opportunity, received Sunday, showed a landscape that is darker than previous landing sites with an outcropping of layered rock.

“If it got any better, I couldn’t stand it,” said Dr. Doug Ming, rover science team member from NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The shallow crater is rich in hematite, a mineral that usually forms in the presence of liquid water, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Scientists are hoping to learn whether the hematite formed from a lake or volcanic environment.

Dr. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for the science instruments on both rovers, outlined the timeframe for Opportunity’s mission. After a week or two preparing to move, the rover will drive off its landing pad, examine nearby soil and later the outcrop of layered-looking rocks. Then the rover may climb out of the small crater, take a look around, and head for a larger neighboring crater.

The larger crater, about 500 feet across, could provide access to deeper layers for more clues to Mars’ past. A camera at the bottom of the lander took pictures of the nearby crater during Opportunity’s decent.

Scientists value such crater locations as a way to see what’s beneath the surface without needing to dig, according to JPL.

Meanwhile, engineers have determined that Spirit’s flash memory hardware is functional, strengthening a theory that the malfunctioning rover’s main problem is in software that controls file management of the memory.

“I think we’ve got a patient that’s well on the way to recovery,” said Mars Exploration Rover project manager Pete Theisinger at JPL.

British scientists announced Monday that they will try one last time to bring the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2 rover to life by sending a signal to have the craft shut down and reboot.

Colin Pillinger, the probe’s lead scientist, said the operation was highly risky and did not have a serious chance of success, according to Reuters. “It is a pretty drastic action. That is why we have left it to the last minute.”

Beagle 2 landed on the Martian surface Dec. 25 but has not been heard from since. The Mars Express orbiter, which released the rover, recently confirmed that ice exists beneath the Martian soil in the south polar cap.

Scientists had believed the planet contains ice but had been relying on indirect evidence. Express’ infrared instruments detected vapors of water molecules, providing the first direct evidence.