Most Detailed Image of Mars Shows Mysterious Substance
Written By: Kathy Sawyer of the Washington Post
By Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2004; Page A08
PASADENA, Calif., Jan. 6 -- The rock-strewn floor of Mars’s Gusev Crater blossomed into sharp view Tuesday with the release of the most detailed image ever obtained from the planet, taken by the rover Spirit’s panoramic camera in a tantalizing foretaste of things to come.
The composite image revealed a mysterious substance right at the rover’s feet, which scientists described as a "strangely cohesive" clay-like material with alien textures. Spirit exposed the material when it dragged its collapsed air bags across the Martian surface to retract them after its Saturday night bounce-down.
"The way the surface has responded is bizarre," said lead rover scientist Steve Squyres of Cornell University, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is managing the mission. "I don’t understand it. I don’t know anybody on my team who understands it. . . . It looks like mud, but it can’t be mud."
The material was mashed and clumped, like something moist and viscous, and was broken away in pieces at some spots. Squyres said one of the Viking landers of the 1970s might have seen something like it elsewhere on Mars. One explanation, he speculated, might be that moisture had percolated from below the surface, leaving a residue of salt that acted as cement.
A primary goal of the mission is to find out whether the dry, frigid and almost airless planet might once have had surface water and possibly supported life.
Spirit, a robotic field geologist, will be able to dig into the crust by locking five of its wheels and spinning the sixth, scientists noted. "Trenching into this stuff is going to be an absolute blast" once the rover has rolled off its landing platform, said Jim Bell of Cornell, lead scientist for the panoramic camera, or Pancam.
NASA announced yesterday that it had named the landing site Columbia Memorial Station in honor of the seven astronauts who died aboard the space shuttle almost a year ago. Among the images transmitted from Mars is one of a plaque mounted on the back of Spirit’s high-gain antenna in memory of the fallen astronauts.
Bell said the Pancam color "postcard" provides three or four times the detail of any images previously beamed from Mars. "These are the highest resolution pictures of Mars ever obtained. . . . My reaction has been one of shock and awe." The grayness of the rocks and the dominant rusty peach of the dust are approximately the colors that a human eye would see from the same spot, he said.
In another image, a mirror mounted on a sundial aboard the lander shows "a beautiful pink-reddish sky." The high-resolution Pancam color postcard reveals a much denser profusion of rocks in considerably sharper detail than do the black-and-white photos taken by Spirit’s navigation camera the day before -- but it is still not the best the rover is expected to produce, Bell said.
The Pancam image, looking south during the Martian midday when the summer sun is high over the equatorial landing site, shows just "one little wedge" of rock-strewn terrain, Bell said. The image consists of 12 of 75 frames that will be combined into a 3-D color mosaic of the neighborhood over the next few days, as they are relayed through the orbiting U.S. Mars Odyssey spacecraft during multiple overhead passes.
Looking at the images "leaves me a little bit speechless," said surface operations manager Jennifer Trosper.
She said the rover should have no trouble driving on the flat racetrack-like terrain, but noted that the rocks’ presence means it will be "a bumpy racetrack."
The area seems to hold no rocks higher than about eight inches, which the rover’s sophisticated six-wheel driving system can easily negotiate, she said. The rover is designed to cover almost 50 feet a day, but on this ground it might go even farther, Trosper said.
Squyres said the site has far fewer big rocks than were seen at the landing zones of the two Viking craft of the 1970s and the 1997 Pathfinder. The new image shows one rock in the distance that might be as big as a Volkswagen "Bug."
Scientists said they will reserve judgment about the geological processes at work in the crater -- and whether it is, as suspected, the site of an ancient lake bed -- until the rover’s instruments go to work. "What we’re seeing tells us nothing about the composition of these rocks," Squyres said.
The image also shows dark "tails" of debris in the lee of some rocks. Squyres said these wind-shadow patterns tend to form under very strong winds.
The camera caught a view of a distant mesa about 16 miles to the south, but it is too far away for the rover to visit, the scientists said. The team was still locked in vigorous debate on the location of the lander. Thus, the elevation of the hills and the distance of the horizon remain uncertain.
Mars was not the only action at JPL Tuesday. Scientists working one floor below the Mars team reported the latest from the Stardust mission, which flew through the storm of dust flowing off the Comet Wild 2 last week to pick up samples for the spacecraft’s return to Earth in two years.
The Stardust team released images and data gathered as the craft flew within 150 miles of the comet, where it measured three bursts of intense bombardment by particles streaming off the comet’s core. The bombardment peaked at more than 1,000 impacts per second, with some projectiles as big as a .22-caliber bullet but traveling at much higher velocities.
The armored spacecraft survived the barrage -- during which about 10 million particles struck its shields -- and managed to keep its camera focused on the rotating three-mile-diameter nucleus, capturing an image of an unexpectedly tortured surface pocked with sinkholes and impact craters, steep cliffs and jutting peaks, and multiple spurting jets of gases.
Lead scientist Don Brownlee of the University of Washington at Seattle gleefully described the comet surface as "ungodly complicated" and "the most feature-rich body in the solar system."
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Posted by: Lisa Marie Storm
Contributing Editor for Paranormalnew.com