Other Work

2nd Rover Opens Eyes To Wonders Of Mars
By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post | Monday, Jan. 26, 2004, pg. A01

PASADENA, Calif. Jan. 25—The U.S. rover Opportunity settled safely inside a small Martian crater over the weekend and opened its eyes on a dark, brooding landscape unlike any previously seen on the planet, complete with the first outcropping of bedrock ever encountered there.

Flush with their second successful robotic landing in three weeks and mesmerized by their first glimpses of this surreal new face of Mars, scientists were left groping for words to describe the revelations pouring in from 124 million miles away.

"I will attempt no science analysis because it looks like nothing I've ever seen before in my life," Steve Squyres of Cornell University, lead rover scientist, told the rapt flight control team as Opportunity's first images began to parade across large projection screens in mission control here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at 4:15 a.m. Sunday.

He was seeing in some directions a relentlessly smooth surface, darker than any seen by other landers and lacking the typical rocky rubble. There were disturbed areas of somber red -- possibly spots where the rover bounced and removed the overlying dark material, he said. The powder was so fine in spots that it held the imprint of the airbag seams. Then there were the prized outcroppings of light-colored, layered rock -- apparently in the rim of the crater -- which, he said, should serve as a kind of rare history text revealing the evolution of Mars.

"Holy smokes!" he interrupted himself as he glimpsed a particularly intriguing view. "Opportunity has touched down in a bizarre, alien landscape. . . . I'm flabbergasted. I'm astonished. I'm blown away."

The landing of a second U.S. rover within three weeks -- both times without a hitch -- brought NASA's Mars team full cycle through what several described as a wild and exhausting roller-coaster ride. They had experienced the jubilation of the Jan. 3 landing of Opportunity's twin, Spirit, followed by more than two weeks of progress at the first site, in Gusev Crater. Then came Spirit's sudden crippling failure Wednesday, with the possibility it would never recover, followed by engineers' increasingly promising effort to resuscitate the 384-pound, golf-cart-size robot.

"Just yesterday, there was a good chance we'd be fighting a war on two fronts," said rover deputy manager for surface operations Matt Wallace, before dawn Sunday. "Instead, we got the best party in town."

Swaddled in airbags, Opportunity landed at 12:05 a.m. on an equatorial plain called Meridiani, on the opposite side of Mars from Spirit.

With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former vice president Al Gore and a raft of other present and former elected officials and VIPs on hand to offer congratulations, team members whooped and shouted repeatedly as the first images and telemetry confirmed the relatively sedate bounce down and deployment of vital systems well inside the targeted landing zone in what scientists believe may be the smoothest region on Mars. . .