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Last Updated: Monday, 2 February, 2004, 18:45 GMT
Opportunity ready to begin work
View 360 degree panorama from the Opportunity probe's landing site

The US space agency's Mars rover Opportunity has deployed its instrument arm and is ready to begin its science mission on the Red Planet.

Scientists said they may now command the rover to drive along the length of a nearby outcrop of layered bedrock to image it at high resolution.

Nasa has also released the first 360-degree panorama of Opportunity's landing site at Meridiani Planum.

Its twin rover Spirit is now "healthy" after malfunctioning 11 days ago.

"We brought [Opportunity's] arm out to ready and telemetry showed us it was working well," said Joe Melko, system engineer on Opportunity's robotic arm.

Mission engineers also tested the rover's rock abrasion tool, running the motors that drive this powerful grinder in order to check it was in working order.

Working arm

Rover project members are excited at the prospect of exploring the "crater rim" at Opportunity's landing site.

We have two operational rovers on the surface of Mars again
Jennifer Trosper, Nasa
The outcrop of light-coloured bedrock seems to be layered in a similar way to sedimentary deposits on Earth, which sometimes form in the presence of water.

The scientific instruments on Opportunity's arm may be able to determine whether the rocks are indeed sedimentary or simply deposits of volcanic ash.

However, before it proceeds to this outcrop, the rover will use its microscopic imaging camera and Moessbauer spectrometer on a nearby patch of Martian soil.

The rover will carry out these tasks over the course of Monday and Tuesday GMT.

Pictures from the microscopic imager will allow scientists on Earth to examine the structural detail of the soil. The rover's microscope can show features as small as the width of a human hair.

Rat, nasa
Opportunity's rock abrasion tool is ready for use
Readings taken using the rover's Moessbauer spectrometer will help the scientists identify different iron-bearing minerals in the soil.

Mission scientist Jeff Johnson said a prevailing wind across Meridiani Planum might be responsible for bedrock being exposed on only one side of the crater Opportunity sits in.

Johnson said scientists might get the rover to "trench", or spin its wheels, to throw up soil and uncover more of the bedrock.

He added that the crater could have been made by a meteorite just one metre (3.2 feet) across that could have come from a much larger meteorite that hit the region.

Opportunity's heater still turns on unnecessarily in response to drops in temperature. But team members say that they can accomplish everything they planned to do despite this malfunction.

"Much further in the future, as it gets colder on Mars we're looking at changes in planning to accommodate this," Melko said.

Memory wipe

Mission manager Jennifer Trosper said scientists working on Spirit are currently wiping its flash memory, the likely source of the problem that crippled it.

Spirit will now deploy its Rat to brush off the dust from Adirondack, the rock it was poised to investigate when it broke down.

After this, Spirit will take pictures of the rock's surface with its microscopic imager and will then deploy its alpha particle X-ray spectrometer which can examine the elemental chemistry of the rock.

"We have two operational rovers on the surface of Mars again," Trosper said.


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