The Spirit Mars rover sits atop its landing platform and has made one small step toward a giant leap onto the surface of the Red Planet. Engineers have passed a key hurdle in preparing the large robot for its first traverse across its landing site — Gusev Crater.
On the science front, a central piece of Spirit’s onboard gear relayed its first findings to provide the first clues about Gusev Crater’s past.
Data gleaned over the last several days by the Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer — also known as Mini-TES — has begun viewing the landscape in infrared, to start determining the mineral composition of Martian surface features.
The first Mini-TES data was unveiled Friday at a morning press briefing here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where engineers and scientists are working hand-in-hand to OK Spirit’s readiness to rove.
Intriguing first results
The Mini-TES instrument is churning out quality data, measuring temperatures given off by the Martian rocks and fine-grain sand. Strong temperature differences have been seen at a site called "Sleepy Hollow," not too distant from where Spirit rests.
By far the most intriguing first result is the detection of carbonate. Carbonate minerals, such as limestone, can form from chemical reactions that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere into bodies of water.
In addition, the Mini-TES is measuring the carbon dioxide resident in Mars’ atmosphere, data that will be of benefit to atmospheric scientists.
"We came looking for carbonate," said Phil Christensen, payload element lead for the Mini-TES at Arizona State University in Tempe.
"We’ve got a long way to go to understand the carbonate," Christensen said, and he added a note of caution.
Still to be sorted out is how much carbonate is carried in windblown dust, in contrast to substance being truly intrinsic to Gusev Crater. That knowledge is part of Spirit’s mission — to learn how long the environment there stayed wet and if, indeed, Gusev was once covered by a lake.
Previously, the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor had found carbonates in dust at several locations on the surface. Scientists think the carbonates were created in the presence of water, but they are not yet certain.
Once mobile, Spirit has the ability to approach the rim of an impact crater, to look with Mini-TES for carbonate down in the crater, said Cornell University's Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers.
"I think we’re going to be chasing this carbonate story for weeks and months," Squyres said.
"We are beginning to develop a familiarity with Mars," Christensen said. "But the beauty is that it is not the Earth. It’s not Arizona desert. There are details and subtleties. It is a remarkably strange place. We’re just scratching the surface of what it’s going to be like."
Stand and deliver
Engineers are moving forward in getting Spirit prepped for rolling off the landing platform. That milestone may now occur early next week.
There was good news on getting Spirit delivered to the surface of Mars. A delicate process to stand the robot on its landing deck was successful on Thursday, but more steps are to come before the robot is free to wheel across the Martian terrain.
"This is not a $400 million rover. It is a priceless asset … it is absolutely priceless," said Peter Theisinger, Mars Exploration Rover project manager. Spirit is fully functioning and sitting in a beautiful scientific target, he said
Theisinger said that Spirit’s handlers are not going to take any inappropriate risks. "We are proceeding in a measured, tempered way."
As part of the risk-balancing exercise, mission managers are prepared to have the rover pirouette 120 degrees on its landing platform and roll off a secondary ramp in order to avoid some troublesome, puffed-up airbags.
Knobs and levers
Increased attention is being paid, Theisinger said, to preparations for the landing of NASA's other rover, Opportunity. This robot, identical to Spirit, will plow into Mars’ atmosphere on Jan. 24 at about 9:05 p.m. PT (12:05 p.m. ET Jan. 25).
This second lander is headed for Meridiani Planum, a smooth plain near the equator halfway around the planet from where Spirit now sits.
At Opportunity’s landing zone, dust particles have subsided, but still linger in the area — caused by duststorm activity elsewhere on the planet.
"Things are breaking in our direction. It’s well within the knobs and levers we have," Theisinger noted in detailing Opportunity’s upcoming landing.
Upwards of 60 people are now involved in reconstructing Spirit’s entry, descent and landing. That information is being fed into possible software changes, Opportunity's entry angle and the timing of the craft’s critical parachute deployment.
"We have a tremendous amount of good data from Spirit," Theisinger told Space.com.
At this point, engineers here don’t have any contentious issues. A missing key part of playback data during Spirit’s plunge through the Martian atmosphere was finally made available to planners a few days ago, he said.
"That’ll tie things together," Theisinger concluded.