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updated 1/7/2004 11:26:21 PM ET 2004-01-08T04:26:21

The airbags that cushioned the landing of the Mars rover are obstructing the vehicle’s path and will delay the start of its trek across the planet’s rust-colored surface, NASA said Wednesday.

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Further complicating the mission, new images from the Mars rover suggest its landing site is not the pristine dry lakebed that scientists originally had hoped. That means the rover’s hunt for evidence that Mars was once a wetter place conducive to life might be more difficult than expected.

The earliest the six-wheeled Spirit rover will roll off the spacecraft that brought it to Mars is Jan. 14, or about three days later than originally planned, NASA said. Further delays of one or two days are possible.

“We are champing at the bit to get this puppy off the lander and get driving,” said Art Thompson, a robotics engineer on the mission.

Ramp blocked
Two sections of the now-deflated airbags partially block the ramp that the rover is supposed to use. Engineers will work to further retract parts of the bags before Spirit begins its expedition to dig up rocks and soil.

“As soon as we get that air bag out of the way, we’re good to go,” said Arthur Amador, mission manager for Spirit’s fifth day on Mars.

If scientists are unable to clear the path, Spirit can roll down either of two other ramps. Those maneuvers would require the rover to perform a robotic pirouette, however, to ensure it faced the right direction.

The airbags gave Spirit the soft landing it needed. It bounced about 25 times over roughly a half-mile (1 kilometer) after hitting the Martian surface, rising an estimated 26 feet (8 meters) after the first bounce, said Rob Manning, manager of the entry, descent and landing portion of the mission.

Scientific debate
Scientists picked Spirit’s landing site inside Gusev Crater because they believed the depression once contained a brimming lake — the type of place that may have been hospitable to life. If that was the case, Spirit should be seeing a flat plain rich in fine-grain sediment, said Ray Arvidson, the mission’s deputy principal scientist.

“That’s not what we’re looking at,” Arvidson said.

Spirit’s first look suggests if the landing site was ever a lakebed, it has been significantly altered by other geologic events. What they might have been remains the subject of intense debate.

Arvidson said a volcanic eruption could have buried the dry lake bed with lava, which was then fragmented by blows from asteroids or comets. Later, deposits carried by wind, water or even ice glaciers might have further buried the area with the rocky debris that Spirit’s cameras show in crisp detail.

“The question is going to be how far we have to go and what we have to do to find a smoking gun” that would prove Mars once was a wetter world, Arvidson said.

The $820 million project includes a second, identical rover, Opportunity, which is scheduled to arrive on Mars on Jan. 24.

In a separate, European mission, the British-built Beagle 2 has not been heard from since its mother ship set it loose toward the Red Planet in mid-December. Another attempt to reach the probe failed to pick up a signal Wednesday.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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