Rover has landed in scientific 'sweet spot'
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: January 4, 2004
The Spirit Mars rover, currently asleep on the frigid surface of Mars, landed just six miles downrange from NASA's original target, a virtual bull's-eye that put the rover in the heart of a region scoured by scores of swirling dust devils.
Scientists are in the process of pinpointing Spirit's exact location, but they already know where it is with fairly high accuracy by comparing broad-area pictures taken by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and images from a downward-pointing camera aboard the lander that were snapped during final descent.
Gusev Crater once harbored a vast lake, scientists believe. The goal of the rover mission is to determine how long water might have persisted on the surface and whether life might have had time to evolve. The Odyssey image shows Spirit landed in a region of Gusev that is crisscrossed with dark tracks left by the passage of windy dust devils, blowing fine-grained soil away and exposing denser material below. Scientists are hopeful the martian winds have exposed rocks formed or deposited when water still filled the Gusev basin.
FIRST LOOK AT THE IMAGES:
"I told you last night we hit the sweet spot," Steve Squyres, the Spirit principal investigator, told reporters during a noon press conference. "What we wanted was some place where the wind, where mother nature, has cleaned off the rocks for us so we don't have to be totally occupied with doing that ourselves.
"And what you're seeing there, those marvelous snake-like features all over the ground, those are dust devil tracks. We know that there are dust devils on Mars and they sort of look like little tornados, but they're considerably less violent than that. But they're good at swirling dust up off the surface and cleaning off rocks and we've landed right in a place that's so thick with dust devil tracks that a lot of the dust has been blown away."
Because the atmospheric pressure on the martian surface is so low - one one-hundredth that of sea level on Earth - the dust devils pose no threat to the 400-pound Spirit. But they are interesting in their own right, and Squyres said engineers already are talking about taking repeated snapshots at some point down the road in a bid to catch one in action.
"Wouldn't that be cool? To catch one of these things in the act, you know, kind of moving around?" Squyres said. "The dust devils have done us a favor by cleaning off the rocks for us and I'd like to catch one in the act."
In the meantime, he said, "we now know with great certainty that we are in the place where we absolutely wanted to be in Gusev Crater. There's a certain amount of luck involved in such things, but my hat is off to the navigators because they just did a fantastic job of just greasing us in right where we wanted to be. ... We're in a marvelous place."
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