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Press Release Images: Spirit
In this image, a flat-topped hill or plateau - nicknamed 'Home Plate' -- rises prominently in the foreground, almost precisely centered in front of a gently sloping, sharply outlined peak in the distance that makes up part of the horizon. The top half of the plateau consists of solid, horizontally streaked rocks interrupted here and there by diagonal, near-vertical cracks and shallow pockets filled with sediment. Some of the horizontal features have sharp, forward-protruding edges. In a few places, boulders of vertically stacked plates of rock have come loose and lie haphazardly on the surface. The lower half of the hill is covered with sand and loose rocks. The flat top of the plateau is covered with small rocks and sediment. To the right of the plateau is a shallow, sandy valley that descends to the floor of Gusev Crater. A pair of rover tracks cross the valley from the right. In the distance is the flat martian horizon and a few of the hills that make up the rim of Gusev Crater. On the right of the valley are the nearby slopes of another rounded peak of the 'Columbia Hills.'
Rover Team Decides: Safety First

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit recorded this view while approaching the northwestern edge of "Home Plate," a circular plateau-like area of bright, layered outcrop material roughly 80 meters (260 feet) in diameter. The images combined into this mosaic were taken by Spirit's navigation camera during the rover's 746th, 748th and 750th Martian days, or sols (Feb. 7, 9 and 11, 2006).

With Martian winter closing in, engineers and scientists working with NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit decided to play it safe for the time being rather than attempt to visit the far side of Home Plate in search of rock layers that might show evidence of a past watery environment. This feature has been one of the major milestones of the mission. Though it's conceivable that rock layers might be exposed on the opposite side, sunlight is diminishing on the rover's solar panels and team members chose not to travel in a counterclockwise direction that would take the rover to the west and south slopes of the plateau. Slopes in that direction are hidden from view and team members chose, following a long, thorough discussion, to have the rover travel clockwise and remain on north-facing slopes rather than risk sending the rover deeper into unknown terrain.

In addition to studying numerous images from Spirit's cameras, team members studied three-dimensional models created with images from the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Globel Surveyor orbiter. The models showed a valley on the southern side of Home Plate, the slopes of which might cause the rover's solar panels to lose power for unknown lengths of time. In addition, images from Spirit's cameras showed a nearby, talus-covered section of slope on the west side of Home Plate, rather than exposed rock layers scientists eventually hope to investigate.

Home Plate has been on the rover's potential itinerary since the early days of the mission, when it stood out in images taken by the Mars Orbiter Camera shortly after the rover landed on Mars. Spirit arrived at Home Plate after traveling 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) across the plains of Gusev Crater, up the slopes of "West Spur" and "Husband Hill," and down again. Scientists are studying the origin of the layering in the outcrop using the Athena science instruments on the rover's arm.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NMMNH
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