Spirit rover bounces to successful landing
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: January 4, 2004
Cushioned by giant airbags, the Spirit rover bounced to a successful
landing on Mars late Saturday and beamed back pictures from the surface
three hours after touchdown. The black-and-white images showed Spirit
landed on a rock-strewn plain, in a relatively level orientation facing
south across the floor of Gusev crater, once the site of a vast lake.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe (left) and principal investigator Steve
Squyres, center, react after getting a signal from Spirit after it landed
on Mars. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Given the technical complexity of the spacecraft and its mission, the fact
that two thirds of all missions to the red planet have failed and science
chief Ed Weiler's constant references to Mars as "the death planet," few
observers expected a near-flawless entry, descent and landing. But that's
exactly what they got.
A 12-minute transmission of recorded telemetry from NASA's Mars Odyssey
orbiter showed Spirit was in excellent health with no major technical
problems after deflating its airbags and deploying its solar arrays. The
data included digital pictures from hazard-avoidance cameras on Spirit
that, when stitched together, showed the landing site all the way to the
"We're getting images, we're getting images now!" exclaimed science team
member John Callas as the first pictures were displayed on a computer
projection system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We've got the first
pictures form the surface of Mars. We're getting thumbnail images coming
down now! ... These are the first pictures ever from Gusev crater on
FIRST LOOK AT THE IMAGES:
SPIRIT'S VIEW OF THE MARTIAN HORIZON
FIRST IMAGES ON MISSION CONTROL SCREEN
NASA CHIEF VIEWS EARLY IMAGES
360-DEGREE OVERHEAD VIEW OF LANDING SITE
SCIENTISTS ADMIRE FIRST VIEWS OF GUSEV CRATER
DESCENT CAMERA IMAGE OF GUSEV CRATER
The transmission of imagery at the first possible opportunity meant Spirit
survived its hellish plunge to the surface in good shape and that nothing
hand happened during the initial operations to slow things down.
"Oh, wow, look at that!" said Callas, whose excitement made him almost
unintelligible. "The surface of Mars! This is incredible. I want to jump
out of my seat, this is incredible! This is outstanding, this couldn't
possibly be better. Everything has gone perfectly tonight. The hardware is
working perfectly on the surface, it's doing exactly as planned and the
images are outstanding. The quality of these pictures are the best that
have ever been taken, they are fantastic, there are details there, there
are rich targets, there are rocks of various sizes, we can clearly see the
horizon. The cameras are working magnificently, this is incredible. This
could not be better."
The landing site appeared much less rocky than the boulder-strewn flood
plain where the Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997. But it is
potentially more interesting from a scientific viewpoint.
"The scientific significance is not only have we gone to the fourth place,
but for the first time in history, we are in a place where we believe
water existed for long periods of time and we have the instruments to
prove that theory," Weiler said at a post-landing news conference. "And
that's a critical new capability that we've never had before."
In the hours ahead, the panoramic camera mounted atop a five-foot-tall
mast will take a detailed 360-degree color panorama of the landing site.
Additional photographs and engineering data will be relayed back to Earth
later in the morning by the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey
orbiters. In the meantime, engineering data from Spirit show no major
problems. The only issue of any significance, and it may be nothing at
all, is a slightly lower-than-expected output from the rover's solar
arrays. But that could be simply the result of the angle of the
Earlier, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe poured celebratory champagne and
toasted the scientists and engineers responsible for Spirit's initial
"This is a big night for NASA," O'Keefe said. "We're back! I'm very, very
proud of this team. And we're on Mars. That's an incredible
Weiler said "this is the best team I've ever worked with, I mean, this
team rivals the team that I worked with to fix the Hubble Space Telescope
in 1993, that's the kind of level of effort I saw here, the kind of
devotion to the goal. The teamwork was absolutely incredible, the
communication was incredible. "
"I guess I got quoted a lot saying (Spirit's descent would be) six minutes
from hell," he said. "It WAS six minutes from hell. But in this case, we
said the right prayers and we got up to heaven."
"You have no idea how this feels," he said. "I mean, you just don't know.
I woke up this morning and I said to myself when I wake up tomorrow, on
Sunday, the world will be different. And it really, really is. It's
completely different. This is a tremendous day. We've got many more steps
to go before this mission is completely over, but we retired an awful lot
of risk with this landing. We've got a good system and we're alive on the
surface. That gives us real good hope, a harbinger of things to come, that
we're going to be very, very successful here."
Spirit bounced to a landing on time around 11:35 p.m. EST. Chatter on the
flight control audio circuits at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory captured
the tension and excitement of the team as they monitored telemetry tones
from the spacecraft.
"We have six signs of bouncing on the surface," someone said as Spirit
bounced and rolled. "Strength of signal indicates we are bouncing on the
surface of Mars."
"Hang on everybody, please be quiet!" someone said as more cheers and
applause broke out.
As the minutes passed, the tension mounted. Then at 11:52 a.m., engineers
crowded into the control room burst into yet another round of cheers and
"We got it! There it is!" someone exclaimed.
"Yeah, finally! Finally, we got it, finally! Whoa, look at the data!"
"There it is!"
"We have a very strong signal, Flight."
"OK, all stations. All stations..."
"All stations... we have confirmation. Well done, guys."
"We appear to be on the... we have a very strong signal with the low-gain
"All stations... all stations, this is Flight, we have UHF data coming
across on B4."
"Flight, MGS MOC (Mars Global Surveyor mission operations center)."
"Go, MGS MOC."
"I assume you see your data?"
"Thank you very much. And this is beautiful."
"Preliminary indications show we had 29 frames in lock..."
"We see no tones, EDL (entry, escent and landing)."
"We still have very strong signal, however."
"Flight, ACE, 14 has carrier in lock."
"We have carrier in lock. We have a lock of the signal... Goldstone has
the carrier signal in lock from the rover. Electronic tones sent from the
rover indicate that the rover has landed base petal down, which means
right side up. The airbags are still inflated, we expect the airbag
retraction should start within two minutes from now."
Translation: Spirit was right side up on the surface.
A few moments later, Chris Jones, director of planetary flight projects at
JPL, provided a recap for viewers of NASA television.
"We did entry, descent and landing pretty much by the book," he said. "The
separation was just as expected, it occurred at the time we expected it.
We saw the brief (communications) outage when that separation occurred,
the DSN locked up right away. The descent through the atmosphere was very
visible on the screens that we saw here, you could really see the
atmosphere working on the heat shield, taking us from 12,000 mph down to
around 1,000 mph.
"We saw the heat shield deploy, we saw lander separate, we saw the radar
turn on and we saw it get the proper solution for how far the lander was
from the ground so it could calculate when to fire the rad rockets. The
rad rockets fired and we hit the ground and for a brief instant, we saw an
intermittent signal and then the lights went out. While everybody was
jubilant that we'd gotten that far and so well, there was no signal from
the craft at all. This was somewhat ewxpected because we would be bouncing
across the countryside, covering as much as a kilometer along as we
bounced and we allowed ourselves 10 minutes of that bouncing before we
would feel that we were finally at rest and we could send back confirming
tones indicating the state of the system. Well sure enough, it took a
little longer than that but we did get those tones and noew both Goldstone
and Canberra stations in the DSN are in solid lock with the x-band
direct-to-Earth signal from Spirit."
Various officials and dignitaries look at the initial images coming from
Spirit. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
At the post-landing news conference, entry, descent and landing controller
Rob Manning said he was amazed by how flawless Spirit's descent actually
"This went to perfection," he said. "The entry turn, perfect, of course
you heard about the navigation, perfect, the communications, the signals,
perfect. ... Everythying worked perfectly."
During the descent, martian winds reinforced the lander's swinging motion
under its parachute and backshell. But small solid-fuel rockets put on
board to zero out such horizontal velocity worked as planned.
"We may have used them in the stronger of the two modes of operation,"
Manning said. "So those little rockets did the job. I think our velocity
would have been quite a bit higher had we not done it."
He wrapped up his initial comments by reminding the audience of "all the
things that had to work."
"It looks pretty easy, but just want to remind you that we required eight
thrusters to turn the vehicle, we had two cooling pumps we had to work, we
had 37 pyrotechnic devices that included ... two thermal batteries, eight
cable cutters, three gas geerators, one mortar canon and actually in this
case, five or so solid rocket motors," he said. "We had four sensors, a
star scannner, a sun sensor, a radar altimeter, two IMUs (inertial
measurement units) that worked perfectly, a descent camera, two radios,
one computer and a lot of software and airbags."
He paused for a moment.
"And they worked," he said, prompting another outburst of cheers and
© 2003 Pole Star Publications Ltd