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NASA’s Opportunity rolled off its lander and onto the rusty soil of Mars early Saturday, a week after the six-wheeled rover arrived on the Red Planet — and just hours after confirmation of its first major geologic discovery.

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Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in cheers as the first photograph taken by Opportunity following its roll-off appeared on a screen in mission control. More pictures flooded in minutes later to continued cheers and applause.

The images, received shortly after 3 a.m., confirmed Opportunity had joined its twin, Spirit, on the ground.

“Two for two, one dozen wheels on soil,” flight director Chris Lewicki said.

Hours earlier, scientists confirmed that the rover discovered gray hematite, a mineral that typically forms in water — a finding that could indicate the dry and dusty Red Planet was once wetter and more hospitable to life.

Rowdy, jubilant scientists filled the back of the auditorium for an early morning news conference, sipping champagne as they listened.

Relatively easy roll-off
The initial black-and-white picture taken by Opportunity’s rear hazard camera showed the rover’s empty lander and a parallel set of tracks leading away from it, traced in the pebbly Martian dirt 128 million miles from Earth.

Slideshow: Dark red planet

Opportunity took 83 seconds to cover the 10 feet to the dark floor of the 72-foot-wide crater where it landed.

“That was probably the scariest part of the drive we’ll have on Mars,” said mission manager Jim Erickson, adding there were no spotters on the planet to catch the rover if it toppled, as there had been during tests on Earth.

The roll-off went without a hitch, other than a wobble to the lander that caused the rover to slightly veer to its right while in motion, said Kevin Burke, who gave the roll forward command to Opportunity.

Mission plans called for Opportunity to spend several days parked beside its lander after rolling off, allowing it to conduct further chemical and elemental analysis of the Martian soil.

Mineral discovered
The iron-rich hematite was detected by Opportunity’s mini-thermal emissions spectrometer, a heat-sensing instrument nicknamed Mini-TES. Another NASA spacecraft previously spied the mineral on Mars from orbit.

“Mini-TES has indeed discovered hematite on the surface of Mars,” instrument scientist Phil Christensen, of Arizona State University, announced during the news conference.

Preliminary evidence suggests the hematite formed in low-temperature chemical reactions in liquid water, Christensen added. NASA designed the $820 million double-barreled mission to seek exactly that sort of geologic evidence.

‘We’re getting good at this’
After testing the soil around the lander, NASA planned for Opportunity to roll about 26 feet and examine a finely layered outcropping of rock. It should reach the outcropping within a week.

Spirit has rolled just a short distance across the rockier surface at its landing site. Software problems drew its mission to a temporary halt on Jan. 21. NASA expected Spirit to fully recover by Sunday.

Opportunity’s roll-off came comparatively soon after its landing. Spirit sat atop its lander for 12 days following its Jan. 3 touchdown after engineers failed to clear the path that lay straight ahead of the rover. The delay cost the mission three days.

Opportunity faced no such obstacles. NASA also accelerated the rover’s schedule to allow it to begin its field work more quickly. Experience helped as well, engineer Joel Krajewski said.

“We’re getting good at this,” Krajewski said.

NASA has two operating spacecraft on Mars and another pair orbiting overhead. The European Space Agency also has a satellite at Mars.

NASA built the twin rovers to last 90 days, although they could survive twice as long, engineers have said. The rovers face continued risks, including bitter cold that already has claimed some spacecraft components.

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

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