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Last Updated: Friday, 6 October 2006, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Mars orbiter looks down on rover
The Opportunity rover was pictured at the edge of the crater

Nasa's new orbiter at Mars has taken a spectacular picture of the Opportunity rover sitting on a crater's rim.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at the Red Planet in March and has only recently moved into a prime position to begin science investigations.

Its view of Victoria Crater will help US space agency researchers decide where to send Opportunity to make ground observations.

Imaged from a height of 275km, the 2.3m-wide rover appears as a tiny dot.

"This is a tremendous example of how our Mars missions in orbit and on the surface are designed to reinforce each other and expand our ability to explore and discover," said Doug McCuistion, the director of Nasa's Mars exploration programme in Washington.

Opportunity has been making its way to Victoria Crater for the past 21 Earth months - about half the length of time the robot has spent on the Red Planet.

The crater has high walls with layers of exposed rock that should reveal significant new information about the planet's geological past.

Cape Verde rocks inside Victoria Crater (Nasa)
Geologists are keen to get close to the crater's walls

Opportunity has already found strong evidence that the rocks in its region of Mars - Meridiani Planum - were in contact with liquid water many millions of years ago. The investigation of rocks at Victoria is expected to fill out the story still further.

The principal investigator on the rover programme, Steve Squyres, said Opportunity would spend a short time conducting a recce of the rim before any decision was made to go inside the crater.

"We are trying to find a safe place to go in and to come out. I'm not interested in making a suicide dive into this crater," said Professor Squyres, who is based at Cornell University.

"With this enormous hole in the ground, we have the capability to see what lies beneath - to see down into the sub-surface of Mars, to look at a thicker stack of rocks than we are ever going to see anywhere else; and from that see a bigger slice of Martian geologic time."

And he added: "We have a suite of instruments on the end of the rover's arm and I hope to take that arm and put it right up to some of those layered rocks."

Opportunity arrived on Mars in January 2004.

Its "twin", the Spirit rover, continues to explore Gusev Crater on the other side of the Red Planet.

Mars landings (BBC)




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