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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 January, 2004, 00:09 GMT
Full Mars panorama snap released
View colour 360 degree panorama from Spirit's landing site

The US space agency's Mars rover Spirit has sent back a complete 360-degree panoramic colour image of its location on the surface of the Red Planet.

The composite picture provides a startling glimpse of an alien world, one which Spirit is due to begin investigating early on Thursday GMT.

A high resolution version of the image will help scientists decide which parts of the landing site to explore.

The presence of carbonates may indicate that some of the rocks formed in water.

On Tuesday GMT, Nasa scientists will cut the last remaining cable attaching Spirit to its landing pad by firing a pyrotechnic device.

It will then perform three clockwise turns of 45, 50 and 20-25 degrees, designed to position the robot explorer opposite one of its three exit ramps.

In total, the rover will turn 120 degrees to its right.

On the first of these turns, scientists need to assess a blind spot behind Spirit. If all goes well on these manoeuvres, the rover will roll on to the surface of its Gusev Crater landing site.

"We're about to kick that baby bird from the nest," said Kevin Burke, mission engineer for Spirit's "egress" or departure from its landing platform.

The detailed pictures returned by the rover are fuelling speculation over the processes that shaped Spirit's surroundings.

'Water weathering'

In addition to the presence of carbonates, some mission scientists believe the large number of fractured rocks at the site suggest they were broken up in the presence of water.

We're about to kick that baby bird from the nest
Kevin Burke, Nasa engineer
"The fact that I see more fractured rocks here than at any other site we've seen, to me suggests that water was involved in the physical breakdown of these rocks," mission scientist Michael Malin told a news conference.

However, Malin said there could be alternative explanations. For instance, the rocks could have been broken following numerous meteorite impacts, which have also left their mark on the landscape in the form of craters.

"We are not looking at a pristine surface," Malin added.

Spirit, Nasa
Spirit should begin its exploration mission on Thursday GMT
Scientists will also be trying to resolve the nature of the so-called "magic carpet".

This is the soil disturbed by Spirit's airbags that shows an unusual cohesiveness, almost as if the grains were stuck together like mud.

But Malin said it was unlikely that this indicated mud or the presence of water at the site.

Mars infographic

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