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A Picture-Perfect Planetary Landing
by Stephanie Wong

Spirit Landing Ellipse - Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSSOn January 3rd, mission control was packed with people.  Fingers were crossed, thumbs were twiddling and no one could could stay in their seat.  One could see team was intense, excited and nervous.  The clock was ticking.  Wayne Lee, part of the Entry, Descent & Landing (EDL) Team began to announce each entry milestone.  The routine roll calls were being performed and the mission controllers were go for EDL.  Spacecraft heaters were turned on and the cruise stage separated.  Atmospheric entry interface passed and the descent began.  Everyone looked intently at the screen, tracking the data coming from the spacecraft.  Each little data point told them where the spacecraft was at.  When the parachutes deployed, the first big cheer erupted from the crowd.  It made it through the extreme heat of entry.  At landing, the lone antenna was stored inside the airbag assembly, and as it bounced to and fro along the surface of Gusev Crater, only glimpses of the current state of the spacecraft could be ascertained.

They knew it was on the surface, but where was it?  How was it?  The minutes ticked by and the reports from the ground tracking stations were gathered.  The orbiter Mars Global Surveyor relayed back possible data, but there was a long queue of other telemetry that was in the process of being sent.  Next was word from the Stanford radio telescope, which had picked up the rover's carrier signal.  The wait for the mission controllers was agonizing.  And then, the Goldstone Station announced they had a strong signal from the rover.  The mission control room went into a giant uproar.  Their "baby" had made it, and had landed right-side up, to boot!

The Spirit Rover had landed safely on Mars.

The team was absolutely ecstatic.  Wayne Lee was jumping up and down.  EDL manager Rob Manning and Flight Systems Manager Richard Cook were absolutely beaming of their "double-luck", as they were both on the highly successful Mars Pathfinder rover mission in 1997.  But the Martian night was young and this was just the beginning...


Three hours later, the treasure trove image downlink began.  A mission controller was rocking back and forth in his chair, anticipating the moment.  The Earth had set over the horizon of Gusev Crater, and now it was the orbiter Mars Odyssey's turn look for Spirit.  The flood of data came, and the first black-and-white images appeared on the screen.  And more cheers echoed throughout the room.  It seemed that there were even more people around now, staring at the various landing site projections on the wall.  First there was a small "thumbnail" image, and then the full-size image came in.  As more pictures arrived, they were stacked one on top of the other on the computer screen.  There was too much to see.  As the Navcams on the rover mast stretched out, they could see the Martian horizon, piece by piece, until the grand image was compiled: the Panorama.  What a great sight was to be seen!  It was reminiscent of the Mars Pathfinder panorama, but the landscape was new, and there was lots for the scientists (and engineers) to be grateful for.  Steve Squyres, the Principal Investigator for the rover, was shaking people's hands, thanking them for the wonderful "gold mine" that they made possible.  Spirit apparently landed in an area with a beautiful assortment of rocks and more than enough roving-room for the rover to traverse.  It was picture-perfect.  The images told so.

Now, early Sunday morning -- or, rather, should we say Solday morning -- the rover is done for the day (Sol 1) and is now asleep, not that anyone else could rest.  What will they see on the next orbiter pass?  What shall they see upon Earthrise at Gusev Crater?  What secrets does Mars hold?

These questions are thought-provoking enough to occupy the team for months (or years).  The day felt all too-much exciting and nerve-wracking for them, with memories to last them a lifetime.  But in exactly another three weeks, they will have to do it all over again, when the second rover, "Opportunity", lands on the opposite side of the planet.  My, it will be nail-biting, but they wouldn't have it any other way.

Get the latest info on the Mars Exploration Rovers at:

- 4 January 2004


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Last Updated:
4 January 2004

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