The first photos of a relatively flat terrain sprinkled with rocks arrived in black and white, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration released a 3-D version of the landing site on Monday.
The Spirit rover is the first successful lander to reach Mars’ surface since the 1997 Pathfinder mission, which was aimed at testing a controlled crash landing with an airbag and use of a rover. The European Space Agency’s Beagle 2 arrived on Mars Dec. 25 but has not been heard from since. British scientists say the craft may have tumbled into a crater.
Spirit is a larger version of Pathfinder’s Sojourner rover and is capable of traveling up to 40 meters in a Martian day, according to NASA’s Web site. The vehicle streaked to Mars’ surface Saturday evening, deploying a parachute and firing rockets to slow its approach. A cocoon of airbags cushioned its landing, and the craft settled in its intended site — an area known as the Gusev Crater.
The 90-mile-wide crater was probably formed 3 billion to 4 billion years ago from an asteroid impact, according to NASA. A dried channel appears to have emptied liquid water, or water and ice, into the lake bed long ago.
“It’s hard to imagine the landscape looking this way unless water was somehow involved,” said Jim Garvin, NASA’s lead scientist for Mars Exploration.
Scientists are interested in exploring areas that once held water because they could also have harbored life.
Principal investigator for the science payload, Steve Squyres from Cornell University, said at a Monday press briefing that the science team was in the process of testing the rover’s instruments and choosing a location within the lake bed for further investigation.
Squyres said one promising spot is a nearby 30-foot hole that could be an impact crater, which would have thrown out sediment, creating a “window into the interior of Mars.” He said the team dubbed the indentation “Sleepy Hollow” because of the last two sleepless nights.
Another identical rover, named Opportunity, is on its way to the Meridiani basin on the opposite side of Mars for an expected Jan. 24 landing.
Both golf cart-sized rovers are equipped with a set of five instruments and a rock abrasion tool to analyze the composition of rocks and soil at microscopic levels.
The rovers’ missions are expected to last until at least April.