NASA orbiter snaps shot of Mars rover 170 miles up

Talk about eyes like a hawk.

The University of Arizona and NASA said today their powerful orbiting camera caught a shot of the Mars Spirit rover as it was perched, taking in a little sun on a rock formation on the red planet.

The camera - the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took the color image of the Mars surface known as "Home Plate" on Sept. 27, 2007, according to a university release.

The Mars rover Spirit shows up inside the perimeter of Home Plate. At the time, the Orbiter was flying about 170 miles, over the surface. At that distance, the camera could resolve objects about 32 inches across. The sun was about 56 degrees above the horizon in the winter afternoon sky. To the untrained eye the blurry image on the surface could just as easily be another bump in the Mars terrain but NASA and the university confirmed today it was indeed one of the two Mars rovers (Opportunity is the other).

HiRISE operations are based at The University of Arizona in Tucson. According to the school, the HiRISE camera is the most powerful camera ever to orbit another planet. It has taken thousands of black-and-white images, and hundreds of color images, since it began science operations in 2006. A single HiRISE image will often be a multigigabyte image that measures 20,000 pixels by 50,000 pixels, which includes a 4,000-by-50,000 pixel region in three colors. It can take a computer up to three hours to process such an image.

According to the University, Spirit is trying to get to the north-facing slopes on the north side of Home Plate, where it hopefully can winter. There it will be positioned to tilt its solar panels toward the sun for the five-month Martian winter. Home Plate is a flat, raised feature that is probably a remnant of a deposit emplaced by an ancient eruption, the school said.

The fact that Opportunity and Spirit are still functional is nothing short of miraculous. The twin rovers landed on Mars in January 2004, 45 months ago, on missions originally planned to last 90 days. NASA recently extended the mission through 2009. According to the agency Spirit has driven 4.51 miles and has returned more than 102,000 images. Opportunity has driven 7.19 miles and has returned more than 94,000 images. Both rovers have some physical problems, for example, Spirit has a locked-up wheel that it's dragging. Huge Martian dust storms in July blocked so much sunlight that researchers grew concerned the rovers' daily energy supplies could plunge too low for survival. That is a primary concern for Spirit and one of the main reasons NASA is moving to winter on a down side of Home Plate.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently sent back high-resolution images of about 30 proposed landing sites for the Mars Science Laboratory, a mission launching in 2009 to deploy a long-distance rover carrying sophisticated science instruments on Mars.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.