PASADENA, Calif. (Reuters) – NASA’s second Mars rover, Opportunity, fell to a safe landing on an eerie plain featuring the first bedrock ever seen on the Red Planet, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said on Sunday.
Views of red and gray soil and an outcrop of “slabby” rock taken hours after the landing by Opportunity puzzled and delighted the scientists, who were already elated that the spacecraft’s sick twin appeared on the path to recovery.
The outcrop, directly in front of the lander, was exposed bedrock that could have been formed by volcanoes, or sedimentation at the bottom of bodies of water, Principal Science Investigator Steve Squyres told reporters.
“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 twin rover Spirit’s landing site that could have come from anywhere.
Opportunity’s mission is to explore a wide flat plain, Meridiani Planum, which may have an iron-bearing ore that forms in the presence of water on earth.
At 9:05 p.m. PST, the U.S. space agency made history by successfully setting down two robotic rovers on opposite sides of Mars within a month to search for signs of water and, ultimately, life.
Opportunity emerged from its cocoon in time to send a slew of images to the orbiting Odyssey satellite, which relayed them to earth. The rover seems to be in perfect health, NASA said.
GRAY AND RED
One color photo showed a gray landscape punctuated by dots of red where the lander, swathed in protective airbags, had bounced across the plain, disturbing the fine soil, and what looked like red, wind-swept dunes.
The rover’s panoramic cameras showed a 360-degree view of the lander and a hummocky horizon that may indicate that the spacecraft came to rest inside a crater, Squyres said.
He added that he was flabbergasted by soil that looked pebbly, but, where touched by the lander, appeared to have the texture of talcum powder.
That was completely different from the butterscotch-colored hills in the Gusev crater, possibly an ancient lake bed, where Spirit landed three weeks ago.
“This is exactly what (Meridiani Planum) looked like in my wildest dreams,” Squyres joked. “We are going to go to that outcrop as fast as we can,” he added.
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 suffered a communication breakdown on Wednesday, but scientists believe they have found the problem in its computer memory and can work around or cure it within a few weeks.
Opportunity landed about 15 miles down range from the center of the landing ellipse navigators drew on Meridiani Planum.
“What a night,” NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe said. “As the old saying goes, ‘It’s better to be lucky than good.’ But the harder we work the luckier we get.”
Opportunity hit the surface in its pyramidal lander at about 1:15 p.m. Mars time, and immediately began retracting its protective airbags and righting itself.
The spacecraft was designed to land on any of its sides and tip itself right side up if it did not land on its base.
“We did land on a rear petal and that’s good in many ways,” Matt Wallace, mission manager, said. “It allowed us to retract the airbags in front of the lander. That front path is beautifully clear.”
The Spirit team had to drive that rover down the back of its lander after two partially retracted airbags blocked its path.
The first telemetry data returned to Earth from Opportunity indicated that the rover’s systems were all working normally.
The golf cart-sized rover, still in a compact crouch for its seven-month, 283 million-mile journey from Earth, had to unfurl its solar panels before nightfall on Mars so it can charge its batteries for its first day’s activities.