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NASA Rover Transmits Images Back to Earth

Aired January 4, 2004 - 07:02   ET


SEAN CALLEBS, CNN ANCHOR: And we begin this hour on a far away planet that really doesn't seem so quite distant today. In fact, it may be as close as your TV set.
Just about 7.5 hours ago, the NASA rover Spirit transmitted its first images and relieved and elated scientists beamed back smiles.

CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien has been awake throughout the evening and is up with us early this morning. Miles, it had to be a historic event for everybody who has been following this for so long?

O'BRIEN: That's for sure, Sean. I think we all were running on adrenaline here at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. The Spirit has landed, quite a marked contrast to what happened four years ago, you recall, when NASA tried to land a lander on Mars. The Mars Polar Lander crashed when it prematurely shut off its rocket engines, mistaking the jolt of the landing gear deploying for touchdown.

This time, it went off without a hitch and then some. As a matter of fact, if anybody expected what we saw last night, they sure weren't saying anything about it. Let's listen for just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Pandemonium in the control room there, after four solid years of work, a 300 million journey, seven months of travel time, the landing happened. The tones were sent back. And before too long, amazingly, it all went off without a hitch. And a series of pictures came back. This is the panoramic you saw just a few moments ago.

On a clear day on Mars, you can see forever. It was the Martian afternoon and Spirit is in the midst of a dry lake bed, or so it seemed. Scientists would like to find that out.

Here's a shot that shows kind of 360 degrees around itself, kind of a self portrait of spirit and some more close-up images, as the scientists right now are kind of analyzing this. Kind of hard to make out what this particular thing is, but Spirit essentially taking pictures of its own wheels here, kind of giving people a self-portrait of some of its gear, as scientists not only want to look at Mars, they want to make sure they have a nice, hardy spacecraft to do their bidding.

So far, it looks like exactly that is the case. Here's what Spirit will do, now that it is down on the ground. This is rather compressed, what we're about to show you. Obviously, this portion of it has happened. The air bags, which protected it on impact, have deflated. The pedals have opened up, which protected it as well. Solar rays opened and this -- the mast, which has the stereoscopic camera is up. That's about all that has occurred so far.

It'll take nine days before this team has -- musters up enough courage to do what you're seeing right now, which is move Spirit off its platform. And off to the races they will go. It does not need to go anywhere near that platform ever again. It operates completely autonomously. And it will go across this dry lake bed, looking for interesting rocks.

And it has a tool, which will be able to kind of augur into them, and peek at those rocks, get a sense of what they have to say because they do tell a story about what happened to the water.

Hard to believe it, when you look at it, this cold, arid, unforgiving place scientists believe was once warm and wet. If it was once warm and wet, there's a good chance there probably was life there at one time, but where did it all go?

Sean, those are some of the questions that this team is anxious to answer. And they think might have the tool to do it right now.

CALLEBS: Well, Miles, before we let you get some sleep, a couple of questions here. Now this dry lake bed, as I understand it, is as big as a state in the northeast. It's going to work for about 90 days. When do you think they're going to be able to start going through some of the science, and be able to take a look at what they have to even begin to detail, if indeed there was ever any kind of water or life on Mars?

O'BRIEN: Well, as far as the science goes, the science team really is already working. They're looking at some of these images. Obviously, in this preliminary stuff, they're not going to come up with any smoking gun evidence.

What they're going to do is they're going to continue looking at these initial images. Once they go through that really methodical checkout period, nine days later, they'll start moving. They'll pick a rock, probably one very close by. They'll go up to it. They'll use this tool to kind of take off the outer surface, and then take that close look at it.

It might very well be that on that first rock, they'll see very clear signs of sediment. And sediment is caused by water being on top of a place for a long time. And that would pretty much be smoking gun proof there was water there.

Who knows? They might get really lucky because it has a microscope on it. They might even see a fossil. And wouldn't that be something?

CALLEBS: Miles, 2003, a very difficult year for NASA. What does this mean to the Space Administration as a whole? We know that Sean O'Keefe led the champagne toast short after Spirit landed.

O'BRIEN: Well, tremendous amount on the line for NASA, obviously, given what happened almost a year ago exactly, the loss of Columbia. Couple that with what happened four years ago on the Mars program. And there was a tremendous amount on the line.

If you couple that with the talk that is going around Washington right now about perhaps a bold, new initiative to either return to the moon or perhaps begin the process of sending human beings to go visit Mars, this came at a very opportune time for the space agency.

CALLEBS: Indeed, Miles. Let's hope it is. And an eventful and safe year for the space program.

Miles O'Brien, out of Pasadena this morning. Thanks very much. Now get some sleep, Miles. We appreciate it.

O'BRIEN: I will.


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