By ANDREW BRIDGES, AP Science Writer
PASADENA, Calif. - NASA (news - web sites)'s Spirit rover has sent its first images from Mars, showing a landscape scattered with small rocks that brought cheers from scientists.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began receiving the first of an estimated 60 to 80 images from Spirit's cameras late Saturday, three hours after the robot made an apparently flawless landing on Mars.
Scientists quickly assembled multiple black and white images to form a sweeping panoramic of the Martian landscape, as well as a bird's-eye view of the rover with its solar panels fully deployed.
"This just keeps getting better and better. The pictures are fantastic," said mission science manager John Callas.
Spirit's successful landing bucked a trend of failed missions to the Red Planet. Just one in three past attempts to land on Mars has succeeded. British scientists said Sunday they would keep trying to contact their probe, the Beagle 2, which was supposed to land on Mars on Christmas.
NASA's last attempt to land on Mars, in 1999, ended in failure.
"For us to see a success here, at least at this point in the mission, is a source of pride for all Americans," said John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Spirit is one of two-identical six-wheeled robots expected to roam the planet for 90 days, analyzing rocks and soil for clues that could reveal whether the planet was ever a warmer, wetter place capable of sustaining life.
Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory let out whoops of joy and embraced one another when the first signals from the rover indicated it had survived the landing. Mars was 106 million miles from Earth at the time.
The $820 million NASA Mars Exploration Rover project also includes a twin rover, Opportunity, which is set to reach Mars on Jan. 24.
Engineers believed Spirit landed in Gusev Crater, a Connecticut-sized basin just south of the Martian equator. It should take scientists three or four days to pinpoint its location, said Steve Squyres, the mission's main scientist.
After landing, Spirit took about 90 minutes to set up and go to work, retracting its air bags and deploying its solar arrays.
The first photographs showed a flat, wind-swept plain peppered with rocks. Also visible were portions of the rover itself, including a tiny sundial it carried to Mars.
The images were the first from the surface of Mars since NASA's Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997. The first color images were expected late Sunday.
Mission members said the rover won't trundle away from the lander for another nine days.
"This is the time to be thoughtful and careful," JPL director Charles Elachi said.
Powered by solar panels generating 160 watts at peak, Spirit will be able to roam from rock to rock.
"Every day, it's like landing in another spot," Elachi said.
The rover relied on a heat shield, parachute and rockets to slow its descent to the surface, plus a cushion of balloons.
The descent took just six minutes.
"I got quoted a lot saying it would be six minutes from hell. It was six minutes from hell. In this case, we said the right prayers and got to heaven," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science.
While Mars today is a dry and cold world, river channels and other water-carved features suggest it may have had a more hospitable past.
The rovers were built to look for geologic evidence that water — a necessary ingredient for life — once persisted on the surface. A direct search for life on Mars is at least a decade away, NASA scientists said.
Scientists took advantage of the closest approach Mars has made to Earth in 60,000 years to send a small armada of spacecraft, including the missing Beagle 2, to the planet. A European satellite, the Mars Express, which ferried Beagle 2 to the planet, safely entered orbit.
Scientists in London said there would be four more chances for Mars Express to try to contact Beagle 2 later this week, starting Wednesday.
Chief Beagle scientist Colin Pillinger told British Broadcasting Corp. television that a failure by Mars Express to make contact could spell the end of the European mission.
Mars Express has joined two U.S. orbiters, Mars Global Surveyor and 2001 Mars Odyssey, already circling the planet.
The U.S. orbiters should act as data relays for the twin rovers.
NASA plans more probes to Mars at regular 26-month intervals, or each time the Earth laps the Red Planet as they travel around the sun.
Spirit's landing followed another important American space mission. On Friday, a NASA spacecraft flew past a comet to scoop up less than a thimbleful of dust that could shed light on how the solar system was formed.
"A comet yesterday, Mars today — you know," Weiler said.
I saw the landing live on CNN last night. It was quite amazing. I'm guessing it's the first time they landed on Mars, so it was a epic moment for all yesterday. I hope they can find life there somehow, after all they say there was before.