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Mission Possible: NASA Lands on Mars

While the European Space Agency searches for its missing Beagle 2, NASA received confirmation on Sunday that it’s Mars rover landed safely. "Spirit" has already begun to send back the first photos from the planet.

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NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe studies the first images from Mars

Early Sunday morning scientists in Pasadena, California, cheered at the first signs sent back from the NASA space rover, Spirit, which successfully landed on Mars. The six-wheeled robot survived the perilous descent through the Martian atmosphere and came safely to a halt in the huge Gusev Crater. Shortly after landing, the probe began sending back the first images from the planet.

The pictures show the barren, rock-strewn landscapes around the rover, including a large, sharp boulder it narrowly missed hitting. "The images are outstanding," the project’s science manager John Callas told reporters. "The quality is the best that has ever been taken. This is incredible. This could not be better."

Sigh of relief for NASA

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena -- mission control for the Mars project -- a sense of relief went out after scientists picked up radio signals from the probe, showing it had survived the six-minute plunge at 19,000 km/h to the Martian surface, the most difficult part of the mission. In the past, two out of three attempts to land spacecraft on the Red Planet have failed.

"We're on Mars. It's an absolutely incredible accomplishment," said NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe.

The picture-perfect landing is a major windfall for the U.S. space program, which is still reeling from the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentry in Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003.

Seeking traces of life

A second NASA rover, Opportunity, is scheduled to land on the opposite side of Mars on Jan. 25. Together the two probes will comb the Martian surface for signs that the planet was once capable of supporting life, such as traces of past water deposits.

Like robotic field geologists, the 180-kilogram probes are designed to inspect their surroundings with a stereo color camera and an infrared instrument that can classify rock types from a distance. A robotic arm equipped with a variety of tools including a microscope and a grinder will examine soil and rock samples.

In the course of the three-month, $820 million dollar mission, scientists at NASA hope to increase their knowledge of Earth’s neighboring planet. They hope the probes will uncover rocks that contain sediments that will reveal information about past conditions on the planet, such as dried up water sources, Stephen Squyres, a geologist in charge of Spirit's scientific instruments, told reporters

"If we can find sediments and if we can read the story that they have to tell, they can give us a great deal of information about what it was like in this place long ago," Squyres said.

Meanwhile the European Space Agency is still waiting for a sign from its probe Beagle 2, which was supposed to land on Mars on Christmas Day, but so far has not sent back a signal of safe landing. It too was designed to search for traces of water on the Red Planet.

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