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Silver lining for NASA as Mars probe lands safely Engineers at mission control ecstatic after a terrible 2003 for U.S. space agency

Engineers at mission control ecstatic after a terrible 2003 for U.S. space agency

With files from Agence France-Presse

The defining moment in the landing of NASA's Spirit Rover on Mars was not when the craft signalled it was alive or even when it started to send back the first pictures of its desolate arrival location.

It was, instead, the shouts and cheers and hugs among the engineers at mission control in Pasadena, Calif.

There was much to celebrate after a horrid year in which the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia made the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration look like a bumbler and worse. And, after the highly publicized, expensive and embarrassing failures of two previous probes to land on Mars, finally, there was success.

"We're on Mars. It's an absolutely incredible accomplishment," crowed NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe.

"We never get it right when we practise this, but this went to perfection," said Mars program chief engineer Rob Manning.

This is the first of two new $810-million (U.S.) Mars probes. Had this mission failed, it would clearly have been a concussive blow to NASA. However, it is less certain what success means to future Mars exploration. Rumours have been flying recently that in his State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush will propose that the United States should visit the moon again -- in part, it seems, to compete with a burgeoning Chinese space program.

A permanent human-habited base on the moon has often been seen as a first step in future Mars exploration, both because it would shorten the six-month voyage and because the low gravity and lack of atmosphere on the moon would mean a ship could take off from there with much less potentially explosive fuel than is required during an Earth launch.

However, a similar proposal by Mr. Bush's father when he was president came a cropper when government accountants examined the plan and pointed out that, even in 1989, it would have required $400-billion (U.S.) to succeed.

But a more immediate target for NASA is to start flying the space shuttle again, and in so doing, to get construction of the International Space Station back on track. There are hopes that this will take place some time later this year after a retrofit of the three remaining shuttles.The most immediate effect of a Mars success -- if indeed it does succeed -- would be to thrust the Red Planet closer to the top of space agendas around the world, including in Canada. "The success means that the profile of Mars activities has increased and that would help us at [the Canadian Space Agency] put together a stronger case for a Canadian Mars program in the future," said Alain Berinstain, acting director of planetary exploration and space astronomy.

Canada is contributing $14.3-million toward the development of dust and cloud monitoring technology to be fitted on NASA's Martian Phoenix lander program. Phoenix is scheduled for a 2007 liftoff and a 2008 landing on Mars. Its main mission will be to dig deep trenches that will be used to look for underground reserves of frozen water. As well, there is a Canadian commitment to the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled to fly in 2009 as perhaps NASA's most ambitious robotic mission ever.

But there is also some local pride in this week's success of the Spirit flight.

The image sensing chips on board this rover and on its identical twin, scheduled to land on Mars shortly, were built in Bromont, Que., by a subsidiary of the DALSA Corporation of Waterloo, Ont.

Successful landing paves way for further exploration

Spirit, one of two NASA rovers that will search areas of Mars for evidence of water, has landed safely on the Martian surface. During the next week, it will scan its surroundings and perform engineering checks before rolling off its landing pad and beginning its exploration.

The perilous six-minute plunge:

When the lander arrived at the upper reaches of the Martian atmosphere it was travelling at 12,000 miles per our. During the next six minutes, several carefully orchestrated steps will bring the spaceship to a halt on the surface of Mars. Four minutes later the spacecraft has decreased to 1,000 miles per hour and a parachute is deployed. Twenty seconds later, the heat shield, which reached the same temperature as the surface of the sun, separates from the lander. Ten seconds after the heat shield is discarded, the lander separates from the back shell and is lowered to the end of a 20 metre long tether. Radar systems on the lander determine altitude and vertical velocity, a descent Imager takes pictures of the surface that help to determine which rockets should be fired. Airbags inflate, forming a protective layer around the lander. This layer will protect the lander from hard rocks of the surface and cushion the landing. Moments before impact three rockets fire, bringing the lander to a halt, 40 feet from the ground. At about the height of a four storey building the tether is out and the lander drops to the surface.. The air bags cushion the impact and the lander may bounce up to 30 times before rolling to a rest.

Lander enters atmosphere; Heat shield released; Lander is lowered on tether; Airbags inflate; Rockets fire, bringing lander to a halt; Lander drops to the surface; Airbags deflect, lander petals open and rover deploys its solar arrays and places the system in a safe state.

Spirit: A mobile laboratory

The mast supports an array of panoramic and navigational cameras and a spectrometer to analyze the composition of Martian objects.

Hazard avoidance cameras are mounted front and rear.

The arm is used to bore through rocks to reach buried material, then study it using built in microscopes and spectrometers.

The wheels and suspension allow the rover to swivel in place 360 degrees and tilt up to 48 degrees.

Solar arrays collect sunlight to help power the rover.

How Spirit measures up

Spirit weights about 17 times as much as the 1997 Sojourner rover Spirit 2003; Adult Human; Sojourner 1997


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