NASA’s second Mars rover, Opportunity, scored “an interplanetary hole-in-one” by safely landing inside a shallow impact crater, coming face to face with the first exposed bedrock ever seen on the Red Planet, mission scientists said on Sunday.
Images of red and gray soil and an outcrop of “slabby” rock taken hours after the landing by Opportunity puzzled and delighted the scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, already elated the spacecraft’s crippled twin, Spirit, appeared to be on the path to recovery.
In a stroke of luck, Opportunity came to rest inside a small, shallow crater -- roughly 65 feet (20 meters) wide and 6 feet (2 meters) deep -- and just a few feet from the intriguing bedrock formation visible on the inside lip of the crater.
“We have scored a 300-million-mile, interplanetary hole in one, and we are inside an impact crater,” Steve Squyres, the principal science investigator for the rover mission, told reporters at a Sunday afternoon briefing.
He said the landing site far surpassed his hope of landing anywhere near such a crater. The first pictures beamed back from Opportunity showed a terrain unlike any previously seen on the red planet.
Besides the first bedrock ever seen, much of the landing zone appeared draped in a fine-grain soil devoid of the rocks and boulders strewn about other areas on Mars, including Gusev Crater, the massive basin thought to be an ancient lake bed where Spirit set down Jan. 3.
The exposed bedrock was an exciting discovery.
“One of the things about bedrock is you know where it came from,” Squyres said. “These rocks grew up right in this neighborhood,” unlike loose stones at Spirit’s landing site that could have come from anywhere.
Opportunity’s mission is to explore a wide, flat plain, the Meridiani Planum, that appears to contain large deposits of a crystalline, iron-bearing mineral called hematite, which on Earth usually forms in the presence of water.
The six-wheeled rover will roll off the lander in a week and a half to two weeks, barring complications stemming from a malfunction this week that paralyzed Spirit.
Spirit 'on its way to recovery'
Spirit suffered a communication breakdown on Wednesday, but scientists believe they have traced the problem to a glitch in its memory and can work around or cure it within a few weeks.
The rover is still in serious condition, “but we are moving to guarded,” project manager Pete Theisinger said Sunday.
He said there were three working theories as to what might have gone wrong: A software glitch involving Spirit's flash memory, a hardware problem with the rover's motor control or the effect of a "solar event" that occurred Wednesday.
Theisenger said he expected Spirit to be back to normal operations in two to three weeks. The patient "is well onto its way to recovery.”