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Rover reveals diverse geography

NASA scientists raved Sunday over dramatic new views of Mars, transmitted by the rover Opportunity from within a small crater on the Red Planet’s surface.

By coming to rest inside a crater, the golf-cart-size rover fulfilled mission scientists’ dream of a close-up look at rock layers holding clues to the planet’s geologic past.

“We have scored a 300 million-mile interplanetary hole-in-one,” chief mission scientist Steve Squyres said at a Sunday afternoon news briefing. “We are actually inside a small impact crater.”

Opportunity’s flawless landing late Saturday night was followed only hours later by a batch of photos revealing geological features more diverse than those encountered by Opportunity’s sister rover, Spirit, three weeks ago.

While images from Spirit and previous Mars landers have offered mundane scenery reminiscent of West Texas, Opportunity’s seemed more like postcards from the Martian version of a national park.

Other sites have been littered with pebbles and boulders, but Opportunity encountered a landscape with jagged bedrock formations jutting through a smooth reddish-gray soil.

“It looks like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my life,” Squyres said early Sunday as the first images appeared on screen at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “I’m just blown away by this.”

Opportunity’s successful landing made NASA two-for-two in delivering the twin spacecraft making up the $820 million Mars exploration mission.

“The NASA team led by JPL really swept the doubleheader,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for space science.

Spirit, launched June 10, arrived Jan. 3 and worked well until Wednesday, when normal communications with the craft were disrupted. NASA engineers said Sunday that the six-wheeled rover’s condition, while still serious, was moving toward “guarded.”

“I think we have a patient on the way to recovery,” rover project manager Pete Theisinger said Sunday.

Problems with onboard computer memory have been identified as a likely source of Spirit’s glitch, but experts are still pursuing various theories about the root cause of that memory failure, Theisinger said.

The leading theory is that the computer software’s data-handling capability was overtaxed by the operations under way when the fault occurred.

As engineers continue to diagnose Spirit’s ills, Opportunity’s handlers plan to move slowly in preparing it to descend from its landing pad and rove on the surface.

It may be two weeks or more before Opportunity begins exploring, mission manager Arthur Amador said.