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Drive-Off!

15 January 2004 (All day)
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Ready to roam. Spirit looks back at the lander platform.

Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has left the nest and is ready to roll. Early this morning, Spirit rolled off its lander platform and onto martian soil. “We have six wheels in the dirt,” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Charles Elachi said at a news conference. Over the next few weeks, NASA hopes the rover will examine nearby soil and rocks, then head for a crater northeast of the lander.

The 3-meter trip off the lander, which took a leisurely 78 seconds, marks the start of Spirit's mission. Spirit's egress, in fact, lasted several days. NASA engineers originally hoped to have the rover on the ground on the fifth martian day of the mission, but the preferred ramp to the surface was blocked by one of the airbags used for landing. Instead, they turned rover 115 degrees toward an alternate exit ramp. During the maneuver, Spirit snapped several panoramic pictures of the martian landscape--a major goal of the mission.

As early as tomorrow, Spirit could begin examining rocks and soil in the Connecticut-sized Gusev Crater to glean new information on Mars' mineral composition, as well as whether the crater ever contained a lake. For the time being, NASA engineers are taking it step by step. The rover's next task will be to orient its antennae toward Earth, using the sun as a reference point. Then Spirit will do some rock collecting near the landing site, using a grinder to get a look at fresh, uneroded surfaces. It also has a microscope to examine fine details and distinguish minerals within rock samples.

Eventually Spirit will approach a crater about 250 meters away and try to find rocks ejected during its formation. That may give a glimpse of Mars' subsurface. Finally, Spirit will head for the hills. Although 3 kilometers away--about five times as far as NASA engineers dare to hope Spirit can roam--the rover may get close enough to identify minerals with its infrared camera.

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