On Mars, keyhole into the unknown

Amid the usual torrent of troubling news, today there is a spark that may feed our hopes. It can be expressed in a word: Mars.

Yes, they're fingerprinting people at US airports. The threat of mad-cow disease is making people wary of their hamburgers. American troops may be in Iraq for years, and Iran is still recovering from a devastating earthquake.

But after a journey of 300 million miles, a remarkable robotic tourist is snapping photos of the Red Planet, and reminding us all that mankind is on a permanent voyage of discovery.

The pictures show only rocks and dirt, but they are Martian rocks and dirt, and thus mysterious, a keyhole glimpse into the unknown.

"Seeing the images makes it a world, not just a planet," says Richard Wagner, former editor of Ad Astra, the National Space Society journal.

The US robotic probe Spirit has beamed color photos of unprecedented clarity back to earth, NASA officials said Monday.

Continuing the Spirit mission's string of success, the rover has correctly located Earth in the sky overhead and aimed its main high-gain antenna accordingly.

This cuts the delay in communications between the rover and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., to about nine minutes, from the hours that had been needed to relay signals through two Mars orbiters.

At a press briefing scientists presented a three-dimensional image of the view from the Spirit landing site, showing pebbles and boulders in the surrounding area that the rover may have to navigate once it begins moving in about a week.

JPL officials said the lander was sending and receiving as much data as they could have hoped, including dozens of photographs.

"The good news just keeps on coming," says Steve Squyres, the mission's chief investigator.

Spirit landed Saturday night almost exactly on target, at Gusev Crater, a state-sized basin that scientists believe may be the site of a dry lake bed once fed by a long, deep Martian river.

Besides being an ideal place to search for evidence of water, the landing zone is an ideal place to navigate the rover. It is even flatter and clearer of boulders than scientists had expected, presenting few obstacles for something that is in essence the world's most high-tech remote-control car.

That does not mean that Spirit can now move around with impunity. In a 3-D image of the landing zone shown Monday, JPL scientists pointed out a surface depression that they nicknamed "Sleepy Hollow."

Scientists theorize that the hollow, which measures about 30 feet in diameter and is located about 30 to 60 feet away from Spirit, is either a tiny crater or the product of wind erosion.

It's possible that Sleepy Hollow contains fine dust that might bog the Spirit rover down.

The rover is perched on its lander platform, and during the next nine days it will prepare to roll off onto the Martian surface.

There do not appear to be any large rocks blocking its way. The lander, say scientists, is in good position to disembark.

Following a successful mission by NASA's Stardust spacecraft on Friday, which intercepted a comet and gathered particles from its tail, the Spirit mission has fired the imaginations of space enthusiasts and science buffs everywhere.

Last Saturday night the world's largest space interest group, the Planetary Society, hosted a "Wild About Mars" symposium at the Pasadena Convention Center. At the moment of Spirit's landing attendees leaped on their chairs and yelled themselves hoarse.

Speakers ranged from the science-fiction author Ray Bradbury to the actor John Rhys-Davies, who played the dwarf Gimli in the recent "Lord of the Rings" film epics.

"NASA scientists came down to say hello and it was like we were introducing baseball players walking onto the field. People were so excited," says Louis Friedman, Planetary Society executive director.

Indeed, NASA got 109 million hits on its website in the first 24 hours after the landing - the most for the agency in history.

The Spirit mission represents not just a triumph of human ingenuity, but a fulfillment of a universal dream, says Dr. Friedman. Mars - the setting for so many novels and films and television episodes - is a destination with special meaning.

"Mars represents the future, human destiny," says Friedman. "It's not about overcoming problems, but about achieving something new."

If nothing else Spirit may encourage a new generation of youngsters to dream of becoming space scientists - something past space successes have also done.

"Seeing the pictures was like seeing photos from a trip you wish you were on," says Richard Wagner of the National Space Society.

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