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Opportunity Rocks
by Michelle Mock

At 11:18 pm EDT (8:18 pm PDT) an intrepid robotic geologist named "Opportunity" took flight on a six-month journey to Mars.  This little geologist, who stands approximately five feet tall when stretched out to full height, will be the eyes and hands of Earth-bound geologists when it begins exploration of an area which came to the attention of scientists because of unique deposits of a mineral known as hematite.  In late January 2004, Opportunity will land at Terra Planum a location in the Terra Meridiani region on the Martian equator located at approximately 0 degrees latitude and 0 degrees longitude.

In May of 1998, the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) instrument on board the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft discovered coarse-grained hematite.  This discovery was intriguing to scientists because this particular mineral has been located only in three locations on the planet.  On Earth, hematite forms in the presence of water.  The three small areas, where hematite has been found on Mars, show other indications that bodies of water may have stood there.  According to Principal Investigator Phil Christensen, it is not solely the hematite that is of interest, but what else may be found there.  He is among many who can't wait to find out!

Opportunity was the second of two identical Mars rovers to launch to Mars this summer.  The first rover, Spirit, is scheduled to land in the Gusev Crater on the opposite side of the planet on January 4th 2004.  Both rovers will explore the surface for approximately 90 days, sending back images and data to scientists here on Earth.

Visitors to Disneyland were able to view the launch from the American Space Experience™ exhibit.  Everything was looking good for an on-time launch at 10:35 pm EDT (7:35 pm PDT).  10... 9 .. 8... hold?  An automatic hold occurred at T minus 7 seconds.  The launch team quickly went into contingency mode recycling to prepare for a possible launch during the second launch window of the evening, as technicians troubleshot the anomaly.  They quickly discovered the problem with a valve that had failed to close properly.  With 16 minutes to go before the next launch window, they fixed the problem, opening and closing the valve several times.  Opportunity was good to go.

A future rocket scientist, of about 3 years of age, was waiting in the exhibit, looking at the live shots as a vapor plume from condensation off the liquid fuel tanks lazily drifted from the rocket.  He refused to let his parents leave without seeing the rocket launch.  His father, probably thinking that the launch would likely be scrubbed for another 24 hours, said, "You are at Disneyland, let's go on some more rides, you see rockets all the time."  It turns out that this little boy goes to preschool on the grounds of the NASA Ames Research Center!  He convinced his parents to stick around, which they did, and all three watched the screens at Disneyland's American Space Experience as Opportunity lifted off like a giant fireball into the dark night sky.

On a special compact disk, both rovers carry 3,551,645 names including Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) and Imagiverse.Org, as they soar off on an adventure that we on Earth can only imagine.  What a ride that must be!

Go Opportunity!

Thank you to Ron Gayler who made sure that NASA TV was broadcast on the monitors and screens at the NASA exhibit giving Disneyland guests the "opportunity" to watch this historic event.  Special thank you to James Heath who made it possible for this "reporter" to view the launch.

[Disneyland closed the doors on the American Space Experience (NASA Exhibit) on October 26th 2003.]

Send your questions about the Mars Exploration Program to: Imagiverse - Ask The Expert

- 7 July 2003

Photo Credit: All images courtesy of NASA, except for the last photo of the Disney exhibit, which is © The Walt Disney Corporation.

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Last Updated:
5 November 2003

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