Mars Rover Lands
From the scene of news at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
At 8:35 p.m. Pacific Time Saturday, January 3, signal was lost as a large set of air bags bounced on the surface of Mars. After several nail-biting minutes, signal was reacquired by two Earth stations, indicating that the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” had survived the heat of re-entry and 30 bounces on the surface – some as high as a four-story building – and was alive and well. The spirit of the crowds at JPL went from tense silence to back-slapping, hand-clapping celebration. Luckily, the spacecraft landed base-petal down, a one-in-four chance, providing good opportunity for pictures and data.
The joy of the successful landing was surpassed less than three hours later, at 11:33 p.m., when engineering data and the first pictures beamed up to Mars Odyssey and relayed to Earth arrived at mission control. The rover was not only healthy; it was in super shape. “It’s not supposed to work this well – we were caught off guard” – “far exceeded expectations” – and “this is incredible!” are just samples of the exuberance in the control room as needle-sharp images of the rover and its surroundings, all the way to the horizon, arrived in rapid-fire succession on the screens.
Some very interesting news over the next few weeks should now be forthcoming from Gusev Crater, a location on Mars that looks like it was once a large lake 100 miles across after a canyon from the south cut through the crater wall and drained into it. It may help settle once for all whether standing water ever existed on Mars for any significant period of time. Even with Mars Global Surveyor and 2001 Mars Odyssey having orbited for years now, scientists have debated over conflicting evidence.
JPL is now ‘two for two’ (see next headline) in what may be the biggest year yet for planetary science. The twin rover “Opportunity” lands in three weeks, on January 24. Cassini is fast approaching Saturn for the July 1 start of its five-year orbital tour, which Science said yesterday may provide “the most spectacular news” of the year for plantary science. The number of current missions and upcoming missions makes 2004 a golden age of discovery in space.
The landing of rover Spirit tonight was a phenomenal achievement by many talented and hard-working people. It is no less exciting than great journeys of exploration from history, such as the Lewis and Clark expedition (celebrating its 200th anniversary this year). Getting new data from a new terra incognita on another world takes our mind for a moment off war and terrorism, evil and folly. All who gave the world this moment of wonder deserve international kudos.
What you probably won’t hear on the news, amid all the storytelling about the possibility of life on Mars (just because there might have been water), are the Christian testimonies. A fair number of the scientists and engineers on the Mars project teams at JPL, some in high places, are Christians and creationists. Most just quietly go about their work contributing to the excellent success of these missions. As you listen to the news, keep in mind that the official spokespeople may not represent the views of everyone on the team.
Watch for the latest Mars headlines, now that we are on the surface. Congratulations also to the European orbiter Mars Express, and best wishes for recovery of the lost British lander Beagle 2. (We don’t think they will find any finches, though.)