Spirit sends info from Mars

National Aeronautic and Space Administration

The first of two NASA robot explorers successfully landed on Mars and began transmitting information back to Earth early Sunday morning.

Mars Exploration Rover Spirit made impact on Mars at 11:35 p.m. on Saturday, which a radio signal to NASA's Deep Space Network confirmed.

After bouncing on impact and rolling for several minutes, Spirit came to rest in the Gusev Crater area of Mars.

Early Sunday morning, Spirit transmitted its first images of the Red Planet by relaying them through the Mars Odyssey orbiter.

"This is a big night for NASA," said NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. "We're back. I am very, very proud of this team, and we're on Mars."

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., directs the Mars Rover program. JPL officials plan to land the program's second rover, Opportunity, in three weeks.

Spirit traveled 302.6 million miles to reach Mars after being launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 10, 2003. Opportunity was launched July 7, 2003, and is scheduled to land on Mars Jan. 25.

"We've got many steps to go before this mission is over, but we've retired a lot of risk with this landing," said Pete Theisinger, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Project.

Program officials expect to spend more than a week directing Spirit through a series of steps in unfolding and standing up in preparation for rolling off of its landing platform and putting its wheels on Mars' surface.

Spirit's cameras and infrared mineral-identifying instruments will begin examining the surrounding terrain while that preparation takes place.

The Gusev Crater is a long valley the size of Connecticut, and NASA officials believe it may have contained a lake long ago. Spirit will spend the next three months searching for clues in rock and soil to determine if Mars ever held water or was suitable to sustain life.

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