| An artist’s impression, released by Nasa, of Spirit descending on Mars encased in a set of inflatable balloons protecting the spacecraft.
|This image taken by Spirit right after landing on Mars shows the rover’s rear lander petal and, in the background, the Martian horizon. (AFP)
|Spirit mission manager Jennifer Trosper. (AFP)
Pasadena (California), Jan. 4 (Reuters): A robotic explorer beamed stunning images of the bleak Martian surface back to Earth, showing today that it had made a safe landing in what Nasa scientists said could be a dry lake bed ideal for finding signs of life on the red planet.
The black-and-white pictures showed a panoramic view of the barren, rock-strewn Martian landscape surrounding the Spirit lander, which touched down at the wind-swept centre of the Gusev crater — exactly where project managers had hoped.
“It’s a place almost ... tailor-made for our vehicle,” Mars Exploration Rover chief mission investigator Steve Squyres said.
“It’s a glorious crater. We have hit what the science team believes is the scientific sweet spot.”
The pictures, taken at mid-afternoon Mars time, show a vast expanse of what appears to be desert extending to the horizon in every direction.
The scientists were intrigued by dust-filled hollows they said may be one of the rover’s first stops. They also were trying to gauge the distance to a series of ridges.
“The images are outstanding,” Mars Exploration Rover science manager John Callas said as the pictures from Spirit began to appear on a giant screen at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“The quality (is) the best that have been taken. This is incredible.”
The pictures captured Mars for the first time in stereoscope — offering unprecedented depth of field that will allow Nasa to more accurately pinpoint areas of exploration.
Squyres said if the landing site inside the crater was in fact a dry lake bed, its sedimentary rock could have preserved clues about the planet’s ancient past.
The spacecraft sent between 60 and 80 pictures — an unexpected bounty for the Spirit team — to the passing Odyssey orbiter during a 12-minute communications window and gave Nasa scientists a glimpse of the lander itself, which had traveled seven months through space to search for life on Mars.
Data collected from the lander also showed it survived its long journey and risky plunge to the Martian surface in good shape and apparently ready to begin its primary geologic mission.
“The state of the vehicle is clearly very good ... the batteries are fully charged and ready to go,” Jennifer Trosper, Spirit mission manager for surface operations said.
The only apparent flaw was that the lander had butted against a large rock that could stand in the rover’s path.
But elated project managers said they could not have asked for a better outcome for the lander — which came to rest upright and almost perfectly level after bouncing and rolling for as much as a mile.
And they said the mission had already accomplished a first by establishing an interplanetary satellite communications relayed by the Odyssey orbiter that has been circling Mars for several years.
Science teams worked through the night evaluating data sent back to Earth by the rover and said they expected the first colour images to be transmitted later today.
Engineers were expected to spend the day testing Spirit’s systems and scientific instruments before preparing it to roll off the lander in about a week.
In getting to the surface of Mars, the spacecraft survived what one Nasa administrator called “six minutes of hell” — the parachute and retro-rocket assisted the probe’s descent through the planet’s atmosphere.
The agency said more than half of man’s missions to Mars have ended in failure.
Nasa administrator Sean ’Keefe popped champagne at a post-landing press briefing, declaring: “This is a big night for Nasa — we’re back ... We’re on Mars.”
Mars claimed two Nasa spacecraft in 1998 and 1999.
The agency is still trying to explain the loss of a space shuttle Columbia and its crew last year.
The $820-million mission’s success was of utmost importance to the US space programme and ’Keefe called it a “double-header” following the successful Stardust mission on Friday that intercepted a comet and gathered particles in a first that could offer clues about how Earth began.