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Way Cool Scientist!

Jim Bell When it comes to the Red Planet, everyone knows what color it is (duh), but what does that color really tell us about Mars and its mysterious past? This is the question that Dr. Jim Bell ponders on a regular basis.

The simple answer is that there are oxidized or 'rusted' iron minerals on the planet's surface and in the dust that gets lifted up into the atmosphere. But why is the surface rusted? There is very little free oxygen in the Martian atmosphere and no liquid water on the surface today. So how did the original rocks and minerals get rusted? The atmosphere or the climate—or both—might have been different in the past, and the details of exactly what those iron (and other) minerals are might provide clues to how different it was back then.

Bell has long been interested in using the colors of rocks and soils to figure out what they are made of, so when the leader of the 2003 MER (Mars Exploration Rover) science team asked him to come on board, he happily agreed. His official MER title is "Payload Element Lead" or "PEL" for short. He heads up the effort on Pancam, a high-powered stereo camera system located on the rover's mast. Pancam is the only camera system on the rover that obtains color pictures.

When the project first began, Bell helped design and test Pancam and define the kinds of science measurements it would make. Eventually he'll analyze the data from the photographs and begin to figure out what they tell us about Mars.

Bell is also a member of the camera team on both the Mars Odyssey mission that has been orbiting Mars for about a year now, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, which will launch to Mars in 2005. "On Odyssey we're taking color images of Mars with resolutions as good as 20 meters," He explains. "The camera is taking beautiful color pictures that we're putting together into a global color map to study the composition of the surface and atmosphere in detail." Bell was also a member of the Mars Pathfinder team in 1997, and of the NEAR Eros asteroid orbiter team in 1999-2001. "These have all been fun, successful and rewarding missions," he says, "but it doesn't always work out that way…." The Mars Climate Orbiter mission burned up when it passed too close to Mars in 1999. And on the CONTOUR mission, the spacecraft broke apart for unexplained reasons shortly after leaving the Earth's orbit. "Space exploration sure is risky business," says Bell.

Bell is an astronomy professor at Cornell University, an Ivy League college in the Finger Lakes region, about 4-hours driving distance north of New York City. He divides his work time between teaching college courses on astronomy and planetary science, advising and doing research with undergraduate and graduate students, and pursuing his own scientific research projects. Bell is particularly interested in using telescopes and spacecraft to figure out what the surfaces of planets, moons, asteroids, and comets are made of, and what that can then tell us about how these places have formed and changed with time. "By studying other places in our solar system," he explains, "I believe that we can learn a lot about our own planet that we might not have understood otherwise."

One of Bell's biggest challenges in taking part in space missions is trying to balance work and family time. "At home, it seems like I'm always doing the dishes," he says. "Seriously, my family responsibilities are also very important, but if you let it, a big project like MER can take every waking moment of your time." Bell's wife and kids are supportive of his work, despite the frequent travel away from home and the many other distractions that impose upon family life. "I couldn't do this without their support," he says.

Even though the life of a scientist is a busy one, there's more to science than measurements and projections—there's also cool equipment! As a scientist involved in planetary exploration, Bell gets the opportunity to experience, first-hand, some of NASA's state-of-the-art technology. "I was very fortunate to get to ride in NASA's KC-135 low-gravity airplane, also known as the 'Vomit Comet,'" says Bell. The KC-135 is a research aircraft that flies in big parabolic swoops up and down. At the top of each swoop—as the airplane is going over the top of its curve like a roller coaster—there's about 30 to 45 seconds of zero gravity. "It's awesome!" Bell declares. He was a member of a team of engineers who were performing tests on a component for NASA's CONTOUR comet flyby mission.

Bell remembers what is was like sitting in the cockpit with the pilot and co-pilot for one of the parabolas, "It was a little scary, but very exciting to have a front row seat while this big jet started taking a downhill dive!" At one point, Bell scrunched down into a fetal position, and when the gravity went away, he began floating upward; a crewmember spun him around and around, end over end, about a dozen times. "It was disorienting and thrilling to be floating and spinning like that!" Bell says, "and now I know how the Vomit Comet gets its name!"