'Spirit' Sets Sights on Large Crater

About 50 feet from the spot where the Spirit rover came to rest, there is a depression in the Martian soil, possibly a small crater.

The scientists directing the mission said they find it most interesting, and it may be the first place they send the rover to explore.

"We have not been getting nearly as much rest as we would like," said Steven Squyres, the mission's principal investigator, "so this feature is now named Sleepy Hollow."

It will still take about a week, though, for the rover to go through its checkouts and start moving in that direction. When it does, it may only go a few yards a day. When you are driving by remote control on another planet, you do it very carefully.

"We haven't earned our Martian driver's licenses yet," said Squyres.

What's more, communications between Earth and Mars are slow at best. Because of the distance, the signal from Spirit's most powerful antenna is almost beyond detection once it reaches the giant dish antennae of the Deep Space Network in California, Spain and Australia.

And to protect against loss of vital data, the ship transmits very deliberately. If you have a dial-up modem on your computer, this story reached you five times more quickly than an equivalent amount of material would come from Spirit's radios.

‘Whopper of an Experience’

This mission was largely Squyres' idea. He first proposed it to NASA seven years ago. He was in the control room when Spirit landed Saturday night; he pumped the air and fell to his knees.

NASA's administrator, Sean O'Keefe, was next to him.

"To see it all happen at a time when anything could have gone wrong," he told ABCNEWS, "to see something quite this successful, this quickly and that thoroughly — it was one whopper of an experience."

The rover is not designed to find life on Mars, but as it probes the rocks around the landing site, it could help show whether Mars ever was a good place for life. The landing site was chosen because billions of years ago, it may have been a lakebed.

"The bottom of where there was once a lake has stories to tell," says Neil deGrasse Tyson, a Princeton University astrophysicist who is also director of New York's Hayden Planetarium. "There's sedimentation. There are things that could have been trapped within the settled material. There's possibly evidence of life."

Squyres said finding such evidence on Mars would tell us a great deal about how life begins. Is there something special about Earth, where life began very soon after the planet formed? Or could it have happened on Mars, 40 million miles farther from the sun?

"Right now, it's a miserable place," said Squyres. "It's cold, it's dry, it's barren. But we have these hints that in the past it may have been different."