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All colours of the red planet, courtesy Spirit

Pasadena (California), Jan. 5 (Reuters): The US robotic probe Spirit beamed panoramic colour images of unprecedented clarity back to Earth yesterday after establishing direct contact with Nasa scientists guiding its search for ancient signs of life on Mars.

The successful deployment of the rover’s lollipop-shaped main antenna cuts the delay in communications between the rover and Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to about nine minutes from the hours needed to relay signals through two Mars orbiters, flight director Jason Willis said.

At 0520 GMT today, the control room at JPL erupted in cheers as test signals showed that the rover had correctly located Earth in the Martian sky and had positioned the main, “high gain” antenna correctly.

“This is just fantastic. We got the high gain antenna to work on the very first try,” Mark Adler, Spirit mission manager, said. “We are ready for the rest of the mission.”

Spirit began transmitting science and telemetry data, as well as the mission’s first colour images of the Martian landscape from the rover’s high-resolution panoramic cameras.

“I expect to see a lot of good stuff on this pass,” Adler said, adding that scientists planned to “wake up” the rover four or five times during the night to calibrate temperature sensors that may have failed.

The mission fell behind yesterday as scientists ran out of time to cut cables that tied the folded-up rover to battery and electronics systems on its landing pad, an omission that may delay its three-stage “stand-up” by one Martian day, or “sol,” about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, Adler said.

The team also may try to retract airbags that cushioned the rover’s landing but now block its path to the planet’s surface, adding another sol to the time needed to prepare the robotic rover for its three-month trek across Mars’ surface to look for ancient evidence of life-giving water in the rocks and soil.

The rover’s “stand-up” was scheduled for sols three through five, after more cables bolting the rover’s wheels and robotic arm are cut by pyrotechnic blades, and its six wheels are moved to their correct positions, Adler said.

Once the rover is freed, scientists will “do a little drive” on top of the lander and turn it to drive off the lander — about sol eight or nine.

The team of scientists and engineers that guided Spirit to a bouncy but textbook-perfect landing pored over data beamed back by the rover yesterday to learn more about its descent, landing and exact position on the hostile planet.

The craft landed Saturday night — mid-afternoon Mars time — almost exactly on target, at Gusev Crater, a massive basin the size of Connecticut that scientists believe may be the site of dry lake bed once fed by a long, deep Martian river.

Besides being an ideal place to search for evidence of water, and possibly life, the landing zone is an area free of large boulders and thick accumulations of dust, making it easier to manoeuvre the rover.

“It’s a lot flatter than I expected and a lot less rocky than I expected,” geologist Wendy Calvin told reporters at a news conference yesterday.

“All in all things performed pretty nominally and we are very satisfied,” Prasun Desai, Nasa trajectory analyst, said.

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