On Mars, the driving is good.
NASA’s Spirit rover is sitting atop the summit of Husband Hill, with rover scientists and engineers overjoyed in achieving the exploration high point.
Spirit’s climb and arrival at the summit is a milestone, said William Farrand, a research scientist at the Space Science Institute here. He also is a member of the Mars Exploration Rover science team.
“When we started the mission, if anyone had told us that we would not only drive all the way over to the Columbia Hills, but also drive to the highest point there, I think we would not have really believed it,” Farrand said .
Farrand added that a lot of credit goes to the rover planners — the engineers who plot out the drives and movements of the instrument-tipped mechanical arm carried by each of the Mars rovers.
“They’ve done a fabulous job with both rovers and getting Spirit to the ‘top of the hill’ is an amazing accomplishment,” Farrand said . As Spirit sits atop the summit of Husband Hill, decisions are being made as to next steps.
“We can see Home Plate now as well. The view is really opening up,” said Larry Crumpler, a member of the Mars rover science team and research curator in volcanology and space sciences at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. Mars rover science teams are prepared to do a “full summit campaign” of observations, he said.
“It is a rather broad, flat summit so there is not likely to be one good place for a single 360-degree panorama,” Farrand noted. “We might do several panoramas from several spots on the borders of the summit plateau.”
From its new lookout point, Spirit can image down into the “inner basin” to the south.
Crumpler said in an interview July 31 that one of the goals has been to take a hard look at the basin to the south where one of the long-term targets of interest — dubbed Home Plate — is located.
Many on the rover science team are hungry to get a look at the possibly layered terrain east of the basin on the way to Home Plate, which is located about a kilometer from Spirit’s current location and may take a few months to reach, Crumpler noted.
“This has been a long-range target for us. We have all been intrigued by the orbital images of [this area] and it is something to finally get a ‘rover’s eye’ view of … although, we haven’t gotten the greatest view down there even yet. But soon we should,” Farrand said.
The summit itself will provide good science, Farrand said, specifically as to wind transport of fine grained materials. “There seem to be some pretty impressive dunes at the top. What we’ll see in terms of rock outcrops is still to be determined,” he said.
Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, reached Mars in January 2004 and are well beyond their initial mission timeline.