A sweeping view of the Bonneville crater, where the Spirit rover landed in January.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 3/12/2004 1:15:39 PM ET 2004-03-12T18:15:39

NASA’s Spirit rover sent back its first vista of the 650-foot-wide Bonneville crater – literally the high point of a weeks-long trek, scientists said Thursday. The view included a glimpse of the parachute and heatshield that were discarded by the spacecraft when it landed more than two months ago.

Spirit also sent back a “you are here” picture of Earth as seen in a Martian sunrise, as well as a bright sky streak that may well have been caused by the glint of a nearly 30-year-old spacecraft as it passed overhead.

Meanwhile, halfway around the Red Planet, the twin Opportunity rover continued its search for the geologic signatures of ancient water in an area known as Meridiani Planum – and got its best view yet of a Martian eclipse created by Phobos, the larger of the planet’s two moons.

The two rovers are both more than halfway through their projected 90-day primary mission, but mission manager Jennifer Trosper told reporters here at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that the golfcart-sized spacecraft could well last more than 200 days.

The $820 million mission is aimed at studying the role water played on ancient Mars, and whether liquid water might have existed long enough to allow for the development of life. Last week, scientists released compelling evidence that the crater where Opportunity landed may once have been “drenched” in water, but the evidence from the Spirit site is sparser.

Video: Spirit on high In search of more evidence, scientists sent Spirit to the rim of Bonneville crater – an impressive achievement in itself. Some of the routes to the rim would have tested the mettle of the hardiest SUV, rover driver Chris Leger said.

“If you tried to drive your car up here, you’d probably end up with a flat tire or a busted oilpan,” he said.

Scientists had hoped that the view might provide further clues on the liquid-water question. But Matt Golombek, Spirit’s science operations team leader, said the upper layers of the rim appeared to be made of the same volcanic material as the rock-littered terrain that the rover traveled through to get to the top.

However, he said it was far too early to determine whether the crater’s geologic makeup was intriguing enough to warrant a trip inside. That decision would require another week or two of observations, he said.

“We’ve been fooled previously,” he said.

If scientists decide against going inside the crater, Spirit would travel around the rim, then head toward the East Hills on the horizon. The entire region is within 90-mile-wide Gusev Crater, which scientists suspected was a lakebed in ancient times.

Another member of the science team, Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, unveiled the black-and-white picture showing Earth in Mars’ morning sky.

Image: Earth from Mars
Earth as it appears in a Martian sunrise.  The tiny speck in the image's lower left-hand corner, where the arrow is pointing, is Earth.  Earth also appears in the inset, upper right.
“This is the first image of the earth taken from the surface of a planet beyond the moon,” he said. In 1997, the Mars Pathfinder lander tried to take such a picture, but the view was obscured by clouds.

In another picture, Lemmon pointed out a bright streak in the Martian twilight sky. The streak might have been a meteor, he said, but it also could have been the glint of the sun off the Viking 2 orbiter, which has been circling the Red Planet since 1975.

Lemmon also showed off the first nighttime astronomical image taken from the Martian surface, showing the constellation of Orion as seen by Spirit; as well as a time-lapse image of Deimos passing over the sun’s disk, as seen by Opportunity.

Opportunity’s next tasks include studying the composition of the BB-sized “Martian blueberries” that litter its landing site, as well as studying gray hematite, an iron-bearing mineral that can be formed through interaction with liquid water.

Arizona State University’s Philip Christensen, a member of the science team, said the impact that created Opportunity’s home crater apparently punched a hole through a layer of hematite, exposing other types of minerals underneath. Basaltic sand covers the floor of the crater itself, but “the plains outside our crater are covered with hematite.”

Christensen was anxious to have the rover venture outside the crater and take a new round of samples.

“The hematite was what brought us here,” he said.

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