Image: Crater's rim
NASA / JPL-Caltech
NASA's Opportunity rover sent back this picture from Victoria Crater on Mars. The "Duck Bay" alcove is nearby.
By Senior space writer
updated 9/29/2006 8:19:45 PM ET 2006-09-30T00:19:45

NASA's Opportunity rover has returned its first photos of Victoria Crater at Meridiani Planum on Mars.

The robot has started to relay tantalizing glimpses of the huge impact crater after a lengthy day-by-day grind across the Martian landscape that ended up being a 20-month journey to reach the destination.

The initial images, stitched into a black-and-white panorama, show rugged walls with layers of exposed rock. The floor is shown to be blanketed with dunes, as researchers already knew. The far wall is about a half-mile (1 kilometer) away.

"This is a geologist's dream come true," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for NASA's twin rovers, Opportunity and Spirit. "Those layers of rock, if we can get to them, will tell us new stories about the environmental conditions long ago. We especially want to learn whether the wet era that we found recorded in the rocks closer to the landing site extended farther back in time. The way to find that out is to go deeper, and Victoria may let us do that."

Down memory lane
Reaching the crater promises to be a trip down memory lane, a look into Mars' history, David Des Marais, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., said in an interview prior to the milestone announced Wednesday. By scanning and studying the exposed bedrock within the crater, he said, scientists can gain a view into the planet's past.

The plan for studying the 2,625-foot-wide (800-meter-wide) crater is to first map out the terrain that's inside the feature, including the large dune field at the bottom of Victoria.

In an earlier interview with Space.com, Squyres detailed what's next: From a site on the rim of Victoria known as Duck Bay, the rover will have good views of outcroppings called Cape Verde and Cabo Frio, along with much of the crater interior.

From that spot, Squyres added, the rover will use its set of navigation cameras, acquire portions of the landscape with its Panoramic Camera, and utilize to some degree its Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer, or Mini-TES. This instrument sees infrared radiation emitted by objects.

Go inside?
With close-up imagery in hand, ground controllers and scientists will begin to piece together a strategy for intensive study of Victoria Crater.

According to NASA's Des Marais, there remains the prospect of driving into the large crater. But getting out could be tricky, he said.

Opportunity and its twin, the Spirit rover, have been exploring Mars since January 2004. The Mars Exploration Rover mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet.

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