Spirit rover bounces to successful landing
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: January 4, 2004

Cushioned by giant airbags, the Spirit rover bounced to a successful landing on Mars late Saturday and beamed back pictures from the surface three hours after touchdown. The black-and-white images showed Spirit landed on a rock-strewn plain, in a relatively level orientation facing south across the floor of Gusev crater, once the site of a vast lake.


NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe (left) and principal investigator Steve Squyres, center, react after getting a signal from Spirit after it landed on Mars. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
 
Given the technical complexity of the spacecraft and its mission, the fact that two thirds of all missions to the red planet have failed and science chief Ed Weiler's constant references to Mars as "the death planet," few observers expected a near-flawless entry, descent and landing. But that's exactly what they got.

A 12-minute transmission of recorded telemetry from NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter showed Spirit was in excellent health with no major technical problems after deflating its airbags and deploying its solar arrays. The data included digital pictures from hazard-avoidance cameras on Spirit that, when stitched together, showed the landing site all the way to the horizon.

"We're getting images, we're getting images now!" exclaimed science team member John Callas as the first pictures were displayed on a computer projection system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We've got the first pictures form the surface of Mars. We're getting thumbnail images coming down now! ... These are the first pictures ever from Gusev crater on Mars."

FIRST LOOK AT THE IMAGES:
   SPIRIT'S VIEW OF THE MARTIAN HORIZON
   MARS ORBITER VIEW OF LANDING SITE
   FIRST IMAGES ON MISSION CONTROL SCREEN
   NASA CHIEF VIEWS EARLY IMAGES
   360-DEGREE OVERHEAD VIEW OF LANDING SITE
   SPIRIT ROVER SITTING ON ITS LANDER
   SCIENTISTS ADMIRE THE FIRST VIEWS
   DESCENT CAMERA IMAGE OF LANDING SITE

The transmission of imagery at the first possible opportunity meant Spirit survived its hellish plunge to the surface in good shape and that nothing hand happened during the initial operations to slow things down.

"Oh, wow, look at that!" said Callas, whose excitement made him almost unintelligible. "The surface of Mars! This is incredible. I want to jump out of my seat, this is incredible! This is outstanding, this couldn't possibly be better. Everything has gone perfectly tonight. The hardware is working perfectly on the surface, it's doing exactly as planned and the images are outstanding. The quality of these pictures are the best that have ever been taken, they are fantastic, there are details there, there are rich targets, there are rocks of various sizes, we can clearly see the horizon. The cameras are working magnificently, this is incredible. This could not be better."


O'Keefe and Squyres look at the first images arriving from Spirit on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
 
The landing site appeared much less rocky than the boulder-strewn flood plain where the Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997. But it is potentially more interesting from a scientific viewpoint.

"The scientific significance is not only have we gone to the fourth place, but for the first time in history, we are in a place where we believe water existed for long periods of time and we have the instruments to prove that theory," Weiler said at a post-landing news conference. "And that's a critical new capability that we've never had before."

In the hours ahead, the panoramic camera mounted atop a five-foot-tall mast will take a detailed 360-degree color panorama of the landing site. Additional photographs and engineering data will be relayed back to Earth later in the morning by the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey orbiters. In the meantime, engineering data from Spirit show no major problems. The only issue of any significance, and it may be nothing at all, is a slightly lower-than-expected output from the rover's solar arrays. But that could be simply the result of the angle of the late-afternoon sun.

Earlier, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe poured celebratory champagne and toasted the scientists and engineers responsible for Spirit's initial success.

"This is a big night for NASA," O'Keefe said. "We're back! I'm very, very proud of this team. And we're on Mars. That's an incredible accomplishment."

Weiler said "this is the best team I've ever worked with, I mean, this team rivals the team that I worked with to fix the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, that's the kind of level of effort I saw here, the kind of devotion to the goal. The teamwork was absolutely incredible, the communication was incredible. "

"I guess I got quoted a lot saying (Spirit's descent would be) six minutes from hell," he said. "It WAS six minutes from hell. But in this case, we said the right prayers and we got up to heaven."

Project manager Pete Theisinger appeared somewhat overwhelmed.

"You have no idea how this feels," he said. "I mean, you just don't know. I woke up this morning and I said to myself when I wake up tomorrow, on Sunday, the world will be different. And it really, really is. It's completely different. This is a tremendous day. We've got many more steps to go before this mission is completely over, but we retired an awful lot of risk with this landing. We've got a good system and we're alive on the surface. That gives us real good hope, a harbinger of things to come, that we're going to be very, very successful here."


Jennifer Trosper, Spirit mission manager for surface operations and Peter Theisinger, MER project manager hug after receiving the first images from Spirit. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
 
Spirit bounced to a landing on time around 11:35 p.m. EST. Chatter on the flight control audio circuits at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory captured the tension and excitement of the team as they monitored telemetry tones from the spacecraft.

"We have six signs of bouncing on the surface," someone said as Spirit bounced and rolled. "Strength of signal indicates we are bouncing on the surface of Mars."

"Hang on everybody, please be quiet!" someone said as more cheers and applause broke out.

"Stand by..."

As the minutes passed, the tension mounted. Then at 11:52 a.m., engineers crowded into the control room burst into yet another round of cheers and applause.

"We got it! There it is!" someone exclaimed.

"Yeah, finally! Finally, we got it, finally! Whoa, look at the data!"

"There it is!"

"Yoo hoo!"

"We have a very strong signal, Flight."

"OK, all stations. All stations..."

"All stations... we have confirmation. Well done, guys."

"Whoo!"

"We appear to be on the... we have a very strong signal with the low-gain antenna."

"All stations... all stations, this is Flight, we have UHF data coming across on B4."

"Flight, MGS MOC (Mars Global Surveyor mission operations center)."

"Go, MGS MOC."

"I assume you see your data?"

"Thank you very much. And this is beautiful."

"Preliminary indications show we had 29 frames in lock..."

"We see no tones, EDL (entry, escent and landing)."

"We still have very strong signal, however."

"Flight, ACE, 14 has carrier in lock."

"We have carrier in lock. We have a lock of the signal... Goldstone has the carrier signal in lock from the rover. Electronic tones sent from the rover indicate that the rover has landed base petal down, which means right side up. The airbags are still inflated, we expect the airbag retraction should start within two minutes from now."

Translation: Spirit was right side up on the surface.

A few moments later, Chris Jones, director of planetary flight projects at JPL, provided a recap for viewers of NASA television.

"We did entry, descent and landing pretty much by the book," he said. "The separation was just as expected, it occurred at the time we expected it. We saw the brief (communications) outage when that separation occurred, the DSN locked up right away. The descent through the atmosphere was very visible on the screens that we saw here, you could really see the atmosphere working on the heat shield, taking us from 12,000 mph down to around 1,000 mph.

"We saw the heat shield deploy, we saw lander separate, we saw the radar turn on and we saw it get the proper solution for how far the lander was from the ground so it could calculate when to fire the rad rockets. The rad rockets fired and we hit the ground and for a brief instant, we saw an intermittent signal and then the lights went out. While everybody was jubilant that we'd gotten that far and so well, there was no signal from the craft at all. This was somewhat ewxpected because we would be bouncing across the countryside, covering as much as a kilometer along as we bounced and we allowed ourselves 10 minutes of that bouncing before we would feel that we were finally at rest and we could send back confirming tones indicating the state of the system. Well sure enough, it took a little longer than that but we did get those tones and noew both Goldstone and Canberra stations in the DSN are in solid lock with the x-band direct-to-Earth signal from Spirit."


Various officials and dignitaries look at the initial images coming from Spirit. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
 
At the post-landing news conference, entry, descent and landing controller Rob Manning said he was amazed by how flawless Spirit's descent actually way.

"This went to perfection," he said. "The entry turn, perfect, of course you heard about the navigation, perfect, the communications, the signals, perfect. ... Everythying worked perfectly."

During the descent, martian winds reinforced the lander's swinging motion under its parachute and backshell. But small solid-fuel rockets put on board to zero out such horizontal velocity worked as planned.

"We may have used them in the stronger of the two modes of operation," Manning said. "So those little rockets did the job. I think our velocity would have been quite a bit higher had we not done it."

He wrapped up his initial comments by reminding the audience of "all the things that had to work."

"It looks pretty easy, but just want to remind you that we required eight thrusters to turn the vehicle, we had two cooling pumps we had to work, we had 37 pyrotechnic devices that included ... two thermal batteries, eight cable cutters, three gas geerators, one mortar canon and actually in this case, five or so solid rocket motors," he said. "We had four sensors, a star scannner, a sun sensor, a radar altimeter, two IMUs (inertial measurement units) that worked perfectly, a descent camera, two radios, one computer and a lot of software and airbags."

He paused for a moment.

"And they worked," he said, prompting another outburst of cheers and applause.

Spaceflight Now Plus
Video coverage for subscribers only:
   VIDEO: MIDDAY BRIEFING ON SPIRIT'S HEALTH AND LANDING SITE QT
   VIDEO: TAKE SIMULATED FLIGHT OVER THE GUSEV CRATER! QT

   VIDEO: THE MOMENT MISSION CONTROL HEARS SPIRIT'S SIGNAL QT
   VIDEO: THE SUCCESSFUL LANDING DESCRIBED AT NEWS BRIEFING QT
   VIDEO: FIRST IMAGES ARE DISCUSSED AT OVERNIGHT CONFERENCE QT
   VIDEO: ENTRY, DESCENT & LANDING SEQUENCE EXPLAINED QT
   VIDEO: EXPLANATION OF ROVER'S POST-LANDING EVENTS QT


   VIDEO: SATURDAY'S PRE-LANDING STATUS BRIEFING QT
   VIDEO: NASA OFFICIALS HOLD INFORMAL CHAT WITH REPORTERS QT
   VIDEO: WATCH FRIDAY'S MARS PROGRAM BRIEFING QT
   VIDEO: MARS SCIENCE IS DETAILED IN THIS NEWS CONFERENCE QT
   MORE: COMPLETE MARS EXPLORATION ROVER VIDEO REPORT
   SUBSCRIBE NOW

Status quicklook
NASA has approved an extended mission for the Mars Exploration Rovers, handing them up to five months of overtime assignments as they finish their three-month prime mission.


Check the status center for complete coverage.


Mission facts

Mission preview - Our story examining the Mars Exploration Rover project.

Getting to Mars - Our story previewing the rovers' descent and landing to the Martian surface.

Illustration - A graphic showing the entry, descent and landing timeline.

Gusev Crater - The landing site for the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit.

MER spacecraft - A technical look at the parts and pieces of the Mars Exploration Rover spacecraft.

Mission science - A look at the science instruments and objectives for the Mars rovers.

Future exploration - Our story looking at NASA's plans for Mars missions through the decade.

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