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Spirit rover bounces to successful landing on Mars

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  • Frits Westra
    Spirit rover bounces to successful landing BY WILLIAM HARWOOD STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS SPACE PLACE & USED WITH PERMISSION Posted: January 4, 2004
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 4, 2004
      Spirit rover bounces to successful landing
      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


      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
      late-afternoon sun.

      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.

      "Stand by..."

      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!"

      "Yoo hoo!"

      "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
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