Scientists 'flabbergasted' by Opportunity pics

Nasa’s Opportunity rover sent its first pictures of Mars to Earth, delighting and puzzling scientists just hours after the spacecraft bounced to a landing.

Nasa’s Opportunity rover sent its first pictures of Mars to Earth, delighting and puzzling scientists just hours after the spacecraft bounced to a landing.

The pictures show a surface smooth and dark red in some places, and strewn with fragmented slabs of light bedrock in others. Bounce marks left by the rover’s air bags when it landed were clearly visible.

“I am flabbergasted. I am astonished. I am blown away. Opportunity has touched down in an alien and bizarre landscape,” Steven Squyres, of Cornell University and the mission’s main scientist, said. “I still don’t know what we’re looking at.”

Nasa began receiving the first of dozens of black-and-white and colour images from Opportunity yesterday about four hours after its flawless landing. Mars at the time was 124 million miles from Earth.

Mission members cheered as the images splashed on a screen in mission control at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was there with his wife, Maria Shriver, to watch the drama unfold, and walked through mission control shaking hands with the scientists.

“The pictures just blow me away. We’ve certainly not been to this place before,” deputy project manager Richard Cook said.

Opportunity plunged into the martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph and bounced down on Mars just six minutes later, swaddled in protective air bags. Engineers had designed it to withstand as much as 40 G’s, said Chris Jones, director of flight projects at JPL.

The six-wheeled rover landed at 5.05am Irish time yesterday in Meridiani Planum, believed to be the smoothest, flattest spot on Mars. Opportunity lies 6,600 miles and halfway around the planet from where its twin, Spirit, landed January 3.

Yesterday, Nasa said Opportunity was in excellent health and Spirit was on the mend after serious software problems had hobbled it.

Initial analysis of the images suggested Opportunity landed in a shallow crater roughly 66 feet across. Its low rim should not block the rolling robot once it gets going, Mr Squyres said.

Opportunity could roll off its lander in 10 to 14 days, mission manager Arthur Amador said.

Opportunity’s possible targets include a larger crater, maybe 500 feet across, that lies an estimated half-mile from where the spacecraft landed.

The rover’s ramp off its lander appeared unobstructed, unlike that of the Spirit rover, said Matt Wallace, another of the mission managers. Spirit had to use an alternative ramp because a deflated air bag blocked its safest route to the martian surface.

Together, the twin 172.8 kilo rovers make up an $ 820m (€652.4m) mission to seek out geological evidence that Mars was once a wetter world possibly capable of sustaining life. Nasa launched Spirit on June 10 and Opportunity on July 7. Each carries nine cameras and six scientific instruments.

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