Scientists are having a "field day" on Mars, ogling a staggering new view of the Red Planet revealed through the camera eyes of NASA's Spirit rover.
Sitting on its landing perch within Gusev Crater, Spirit used its Panoramic Camera, PanCam for short, to reveal the Martian landscape to be a colorful, dazzling locale ripe for exploration.
The initial view released, a mosaic of 12 separate pictures, was taken from the front of the rover. At 12 million pixels, the image and the rest that followed are the highest-resolution pictures ever obtained from Mars. It is a 45-degree field of view of the terrain in Gusev Crater.
The color vista shows the surface to be a geological paradise, rich in rock and soil variations. Image details of the robot's neighborhood are of far greater clarity than photos taken previously by the Viking and Mars Pathfinder cameras.
Scientists were elated at the quality of Spirit's camera-clicking job. The imagery was shown Tuesday at a morning press briefing held here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Shock and awe
Jim Bell, payload element lead for the PanCam, said he’s in "shock and awe" after seeing the first color images that his camera equipment has taken.
"These pictures are the highest resolution … highest detail every obtained" from Mars, Bell said. "It's spectacular, but to really do it justice, you have to zoom in and explore all the incredible detail."
The rocks in view, Bell said, are different in size and shape. "It’s a wonderful mix of smooth and angular rocks."
"And this is just the tip of iceberg, in terms of what you’re about to see," added Steve Squyres, principal investigator for Spirit's science package. "This is just a tiny taste of what’s to come."
Because Gusev Crater is a windy area, Mother Nature has helped dust off the surface of exposed rocks, Squyres said.
"I believe as we get to know our new home in Gusev Crater a lot better over the next few days, our picture of what’s going on may change dramatically," Squyres remarked, pointing out that there are far fewer big rocks at the Gusev Crater, compared to the Mars Pathfinder and Viking landing sites.
Early black-and-white pictures whetted the appetite of scientists, but the new sweeping color panorama will help chart exactly where the six-wheeled robot should first be sent.
Before Tuesday's press conference, the team received a telephone call from President Bush congratulating them for their accomplishment.
Charles Elachi, JPL's director, said the president congratulated the team, thanking them for "daring to be great."
The president, Elachi recalled, cited the landing of Spirit as "a proud moment for all Americans" and said the mission was an inspiration for the next generation of explorers.
Jennifer Trosper, mission manager for the rover's surface operations, invited the president to come to JPL and drive the rover, "but very carefully."
Impromptu science experiment
In what could be considered an impromptu science experiment done on Mars, Squyres said the retraction of Spirit’s airbags have uncovered "bizarre" subsurface material.
The "weird stuff," Squyres said, appears to be "strangely cohesive."
"We don’t understand it. … We’re dying to get a close-up look," Squyres added.
Bell told Space.com that many on the team are hungry to make a higher-resolution scan of the "un-Marsed" material before the rover drives away.
It is conceivable, Bell said, that this newly exposed mystery material — having never seen daylight on Mars — could become altered, given its exposure to the ultraviolet light streaming down on the surface.
Once Spirit is released from its landing platform, the rover — similar in size to a riding mower — will be the designated driver on Mars. Once loaded with driving instructions, the robot will autonomously steer itself across Gusev Crater.
Trosper characterized the landscape as "a bumpy race track."
"We don’t think we’re going to have problems driving," Trosper said. "Right now we’re anticipating it’s going to be a good amount of driving and we’re going to be able to drive long distances."
Thanks for the memory
Starting Monday and going into Tuesday's early hours, color views that were stored onboard the rover in its memory reached the gathered science and engineering teams here at JPL.
The PanCam tops a tall mast built into the Spirit rover. On this rotating and swiveling mast, two high-resolution color stereo cameras complement the rover's navigation cameras, as well as a Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer, or "Mini-TES".
When Spirit begins wheeling about Mars, the camera system will be 5 feet (1.5 meters) above the ground — providing a view similar to what a spacesuited human might see standing on Mars.
As expected, the rust color of the Martian surface is apparent.
Scientists are particularly keen to study in greater detail what has been called "Sleepy Hollow," a shallow depression in the Mars ground near Spirit. That feature may become an early destination when the rover drives off its lander platform in a week or so.
More imagery and engineering data will continue to be fed to Earth in the days, weeks and months to come.
Engineers have now successfully tested "robot speak" through multiple communications links — relayed through both NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, but also directly between Earth and Spirit.
Traveling at the speed of light, the image and data transmissions take about 10 minutes to zoom between Mars and Earth.
Not only is that a good idea, "it's the law," said Squyres.