PASADENA, Calif. – The long-awaited, crisply defined color photograph of Mars made its debut Tuesday, after NASA's (search) Spirit rover snapped it with a high-tech camera and transmitted it back to Earth.
The new image, actually a mosaic of a dozen separate photos shot by Spirit, is the sharpest, clearest photo ever taken of the Red Planet's surface.
It shows the rock-strewn, Martian terrain in Gusev Crater, where Spirit landed over the weekend. Scientists are hoping the crater is an ancient lakebed, which would mean life was once possible on the planet.
"I think trenching into this stuff is just going to be an absolute blast once we get the rover down onto the surface," said Jim Bell, the main scientist for the rover's panorama camera, describing the image of smooth and angular rocks and soil near the rover landing site.
The high-resolution, panoramic camera that took the pictures, called Pancam (search), has what is equivalent to perfect, 20/20 vision.
NASA scientists called the picture a "postcard," sent across 105 million miles of space to Earth from its Spirit rover. The photo covers a 45-degree field of view of the crater where Spirit touched down Saturday.
The image is a taste of bigger and better pictures to come, comprising just one-eighth of a sweeping color panorama Spirit continues to shoot. It should be transmitted to Earth over the next week.
After a flawless landing on the Red Planet, the rover has snapped images of a barren, rocky landscape scientists hopes will yield clues to whether Mars was once hospitable to life.
NASA on Monday released a 3-D, black-and-white picture that provided a 360-degree look at the desolate, wind-swept plains of Mars' surface.
"I feel like I'm at a bad, '50s B-movie," mission manager Matt Wallace after reporters were issued 3-D glasses to take in the image at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Guided by the high-resolution image, NASA scientists selected the first target on Mars they want Spirit to explore: a dusty depression nicknamed "Sleepy Hollow" that lies about 40 feet from where the rover landed. They believe the 30-foot-diameter depression is a dust-filled impact crater, one of dozens that pock an otherwise flat landscape.
"It's a window" to Mars' ancient past, said Steven Squyres, the mission's main scientist.
The golf cart-size Spirit alighted on Mars in what scientists believe was a near-perfect landing with giant airbags as cushions.
It marked NASA's first visit to the planet's surface since Pathfinder in 1997. The $820 million unmanned project also includes a twin rover, Opportunity, set to land on the opposite side of Mars on Jan. 24.
Other missions to Mars have ended in spectacular failure, with some spacecraft crashing or blowing to pieces.
The 3-D images also show a cluster of hills on the horizon, thought to be less than two miles away. Over the next three months, Spirit will look for geologic evidence that Mars was once warmer, wetter and perhaps more conducive to life.
Scientists continued to perform health checks on the rover. A science instrument to analyze minerals in rocks and soil had malfunctioned on the way to Mars but was found to be in perfect working order.
There were a few minor concerns: The current in one of two motors that drive the rover's high-gain antenna was spiking intermittently, and dustier-than-expected conditions meant Spirit's solar panels were generating just 83 percent of the expected amount of power. Neither condition threatened the overall mission, NASA said.
Scientists determined that two objects believed to be rocks partially blocking the ramp Spirit will use to roll down to the surface are actually bits of air bag. NASA planned to retract the air bags to clear the way.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.